Whose Books: Uplifting the literacy landscape in Oak Cliff– one book at a time

Story and video by Jennie Trejo. Photos provided by Whose Books.

A bookstore in Oak Cliff is proving that reading is truly for everyone by symbolizing the transformative power of literature in building inclusive and empowered communities.

Whose Books is an indie bookstore founded by Claudia Vega, a trailblazer with a passion for community empowerment and education. Her transition from a 20-year career in education to a bookstore owner is a testament to her resilience, vision, and unwavering commitment to making a difference in her community. Growing up in Oak Cliff, Claudia and her husband, both career-long educators, recognized the absence of consistent access to books, inspiring them to establish a neighborhood bookstore that would serve as a local literature hub.

“The bookstore has always been a dream for my husband and me,” Claudia explains. “We both grew up with families that instilled the importance of reading, but we didn’t have consistent neighborhood access. If we wanted to buy books, we had to go to North Dallas or the suburbs. Eventually, it became the same for our children.”

Claudia is no stranger to launching successful projects. During her career, she helped establish the Latino Cultural Center and served as the founding principal at Mata Montessori Elementary, DISD’s first “choice school.” She also made significant contributions as a journalism teacher and later as principal at her alma mater, Sunset High School in Oak Cliff.

Claudia’s experience as an educator fueled her decision to open a bookstore, driven by her observations of the persistent reading achievement gap among students in Dallas. Reflecting on her years in the classroom, she recognized practices that hindered young readers’ enjoyment and passion for books. Delving into research like The Book Desert Map, Claudia uncovered correlations between low book ownership in neighborhoods and lower literacy rates.

“This reading gap that we have is directly related to access and to low reading culture,” Claudia says passionately. As a mother, book lover, and educator, Claudia concluded that fostering a love for reading requires addressing issues of access and promoting a vibrant reading culture within homes and communities. Thus, her bookstore venture became her way of bridging these gaps.

“I was the principal at Sunset when COVID hit, and I had been thinking about the bookstore for many years, but I decided to stay because it didn’t feel right to leave in the middle of everything that was going on,” Claudia explains. “Afterward, just like everyone else, I was reevaluating and thinking of what was next. I finally thought, ‘Why wait any longer?’ And I took the leap.”

Even though Claudia was ready to jump in, she faced skepticism and discouragement from local developers.

“When we were looking at spaces, I was told by local developers that people in Oak Cliff don’t read. They said that bookstores are going out of style and that if we didn’t provide alcohol, then it wouldn’t be successful. I got all kinds of responses, but it didn’t deter me– if anything, it made me more determined to find a way to make it happen,” Claudia says.

In a bold move, Claudia cashed her retirement savings to self-fund the bookstore, which allowed her to chart her own course. Ultimately, she says her decision to open the store was not merely a commercial venture; it was a labor of love driven by a deep-rooted belief in the needs of the community.

“I believed that the community was ready for it,” Claudia says. We started in a very small incubator space at Tyler Station, which was a great place to open our doors and test our ideas. Other bookstores have opened in the neighborhood, but we wanted to create something that was more of a family and community-focused bookstore. Everyone has their niche, and we wanted to have inclusive opportunities.”

A significant pillar of Whose Books’ mission is the education piece. Claudia’s commitment to fostering a culture of literacy led her to launch a nonprofit called ARCO (Activating Reading Communities Organization) in November 2023.

“ARCO is designed to help us reach the half of the people who are new to reading but for whom access is still a barrier,” Claudia explains. “ARCO’s mission is really to activate the reading culture, specifically south of the Trinity River.” Through ARCO, Claudia aims to address barriers to book access by sponsoring community book gifting, hosting author events, and having conversations that are culturally relevant to the community. Ultimately, it aims to foster positive reading experiences and create inclusive spaces for literary engagement.

At Whose Books, the shelves reflect Claudia’s dedication to diversity, inclusivity, and community representation. Through grassroots efforts and community engagement, she ensures every visitor feels welcomed and represented. From bilingual collections to author events celebrating marginalized voices, Whose Books is more than a bookstore; it’s a sanctuary for bibliophiles of all ages and a catalyst for social change.

As Claudia reflects on her journey, she remains steadfast in her conviction that access to literature is a fundamental right, not a privilege. “This space, this bookstore, is for you,” she emphasizes. “It’s for everybody. Hence the name ‘Whose Books.’ It’s for everyone, not just one type of person or one group.”

Whose Books is now in its second, expanded location at 512 W Davis Street. Their next event is in partnership with The Writer’s Garret. They will host will host Javier Zamora, the author of Solito, on May 16.

If you want to learn more, shop, or learn how to get involved with ARCO, you can visit the Whose Books website.