Now and then, a typewritten letter appears in my snail-mail box, a press release from someone calling himself “Uncle Robert” at Imported Books on West Clarendon. Always enclosed is a list of books in stock, often four pages, single-spaced.
The use of a typewriter and employment of the U.S. Postal Service is old-school enough to prompt curiosity. But then the wasteland of papers surrounding my laptop swallows the letters, and they’re forgotten ’til the next one arrives.
Turns out Uncle Robert is Robert N. Jones, and he’s owned Imported Books, at Clarendon and Oak Cliff Boulevard, since 1976. We visited this week because of the headline on his latest press release: “90-year-old veteran of World War II is closing Spanish book store.”
Imported Books is one short block from the famous Aunt Stelle’s sno-cone shop. It’s inside a plain little house with asbestos siding, faded from the yellow or tan it used to be. A sign announces, “Libros en Español.”
An automatic “bong!” as the door opens brings Jones to his feet, “Can I help you with something?” he asks, making his way from the back room, his office. He’s eager to have a customer.
“No one ever comes in here,” he says. When people are curious enough to open the door, they often hang around close to the entrance for a minute or two and then steal out, Jones says. That’s why he makes sure to put the most important books at the very front. For example, Jones has deemed Los Hombres de Dallas by Burt Hirschfeld marketable enough to be front and center, since the reprisal of that TV show.
Imported Books is not just a Spanish book store, although Jones says the best sellers nowadays are materials to help Spanish-speakers learn English. There are books in 80 languages — German, Russian, Chinese, Basque. “No one wants to learn Basque,” Jones says. “It’s too difficult.”
Jones especially loves illustrated dictionaries. He pulls one from a top shelf and flips through page after page of drawings and diagrams for learners of Spanish. On a bottom shelf is Harrap’s Tintin Illustrated Dictionary. Originally marked $69, it is now half price, along with everything else in the store.
Imported Books had its biggest year in 1994, when it grossed $124,000 in sales, according to a hand-drawn chart Jones shows me. Every year between 1981 and 2000, the shop did over $50,000 in sales. The numbers drop steadily from ’94 to 2002, the last year on the chart, when the shop sold about $24,000.
He says he stopped buying books about eight years ago, and he does plan to close the store, eventually. “It’s going to take a year or two to sell these down,” he says. “It all depends on my health.”
Jones grew up in North Dallas and served in France and Germany as a soldier in the U.S. Army Infantry during World War II. He worked as a petroleum engineer for the Magnolia Oil Company in Oklahoma and West Texas and then he went to work for the Texas Rail Road Commission.
He and his wife, Mary Alice, settled in Oak Cliff around 1953. They had five children. He served as vice president of LP Gas Carburetors, the business his father started on Beckley, for 23 years. Jones is fluent in Spanish, and his wife was a Mexican national, so they started a part-time translation and interpreting business together.
Jones started out in the business ordering books from Mexico for Multilingual Book Store, which was on Inwood. That store closed around 1974, and Jones stepped in to fill the market niche.
Jones lives in the back of the shop, and sometimes, he puts out yard sale signs in hopes of drawing in some customers. Along with books, he sets out clothes, dishes, boxes of junk.
“People won’t stop just for books,” he says.
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