LAREDO, Texas — With a population of nearly a quarter-million people, this Texas city could soon be the largest in the nation without a single bookseller.
The situation is so grim that schoolchildren have pleaded for a reprieve from January's planned shutdown of the B. Dalton bookstore. After that, the nearest store will be 150 miles away in San Antonio.
The B. Dalton store was never a community destination with comfy couches and an espresso bar, but its closing will create a literary void in a city with a high illiteracy rate. Industry analysts and book associations could not name a larger American city without a single bookseller.
"Corporate America considers Laredo kind of the backwater," said the city's most prolific author, Jerry Thompson, a professor at Texas A&M International University who has written more than 20 books.
Since the closing was announced, book lovers in Laredo have flocked to the small store to stock up on their favorite titles.
Schoolchildren even wrote letters to the parent company, Barnes & Noble, begging for the store to stay open.
"Without that store, my life would be so sad and boring," wrote a fifth-grader named Bryanna Salinas, who signed her name with a heart.
The Laredo store is among 49 remaining B. Daltons nationwide that Barnes & Noble will close by next year.
The company believes a bookstore is viable in Laredo and has identified a location for a large-format Barnes & Noble, but the space will not be available for at least 18 months, said David Deason, Barnes & Noble vice president of development.
In the meantime, without a single independent bookseller, Laredo may be by itself among big cities.
Though an independent bookstore is the only one of its kind in Newark, N.J., a city of nearly 288,000, big chains are nearby in the suburbs or New York City. Laredo is surrounded by rural ranching towns on its side of the border.
"We suffer, but we don't suffer to the extent that a Laredo would," said Wilma Grey, director of the Newark Public Library.
Some worry that the closing could send a message that books and reading are not priorities in Laredo, a city of 230,000 that is choked by smog from trucks lining up at the border. The city is home to the nation's biggest entry point for trucks and trains.
Nearly half of the population of Webb County, which includes Laredo, lacks basic literacy skills, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Fewer than 1 in 5 city residents has a college degree. And about 30 percent of the city lives below the poverty level, according to the 2000 census.
Laredo residents can still purchase books online, but civic leaders fear that without a bookstore, many residents will not have the opportunity to buy books.
Many also feel that the stigma of not having a bookstore hurts Laredo's reputation.
Outsiders, even other Texans, do not always distinguish between "los dos Laredos" — the relatively peaceful city in Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, across the border in Mexico, which has been racked by drug-war violence.
But some bookstore supporters are undaunted.
Maria Soliz, Laredo Public Library director, is leading the charge to get a bookstore back. The city's library system was already planning to open two more branches over the next two years to meet demand. That's in addition to the two-story main library painted in bold, Mexican-inspired colors that serves about 400,000 visitors annually.
"It's not reflective of the city that they're closing," Soliz said. "I know this city can support a bookstore."
Deason said the Laredo store is profitable, but its profits are not significant when factoring in the expenses of running a chain that's being phased out.
Some people also question the city's priorities. As Elaine Perry walked out of the bookstore earlier this month with a heavy bag of hardcovers, she criticized a recent proposal to build an indoor snow park.
"A snowboarding park in Laredo," Perry said. "Have you ever heard of anything so stupid?"
Bookstore customers tend to be well educated and to have disposable income, said Michael Norris, an analyst with Simba Information. But that demographic is hardly what makes or breaks the business, he said.
A bookstore is "either the cultural center in its community, or it's a pile of books with a roof over it," Norris said.
The B. Dalton in Laredo certainly skews toward the latter. It has narrow aisles, no coffee for sale and not a single chair to sit and read.
Seve Perez, who works at the store next door, said much of the traffic at Mall del Norte comes from Mexico, both from Nuevo Laredo and deal-seeking shoppers bused in from the country's interior.
Standing behind a rack of sale T-shirts that read "Save Texas Rap," the 66-year-old said his bookish daughters will be crushed when the bookstore leaves.
Next door, Laredo resident Misti Saenz walked out of B. Dalton with a sack of nine romance novels for her teenage daughter. She was stocking up before the store closes Jan. 16.
"It's going to be a total bummer," Saenz said. "It made me wish I had shopped there more."