Robert N. Jones at International Books

Photo by Danny Fulgencio.

This 36-year-old bookstore is in its twilight years

An automatic “bong!” sounds as the door opens to International Books, and it brings Robert N. 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.

Jones, 90, opened International Books in 1976. It is the oldest bookstore in Oak Cliff, and Jones says he plans to close it soon.

The sign out front reads “Libros en Español,” but Imported Books is not just a Spanish bookstore. Jones says the bestsellers nowadays are materials to help Spanish-speakers learn English, but 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 offers. Every year between 1981 and 2000, the shop did more than $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 and for his family’s carburetor business in West Dallas.

He and his wife, Mary Alice, settled in Oak Cliff around 1953. They had five children. Jones is fluent in Spanish, and his wife was a Mexican national, and they parleyed their translation business into a bookstore.

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.