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The Final Chapter: 91-Year-Old Prepares To Shutter His Home Bookstore

In the heart of Oak Cliff is an institution -- Imported Books, a bookstore that Robert Jones has been running out of the front rooms of his house since the 1970s.

He's known as “Uncle Robert." But he's 91. And he’s getting ready to close his shop.

The corner bungalow on Clarendon Drive has peeling white paint and a neon green front door. Except for the flagpole in the front lawn with a sign that says “BOOKS in Spanish,” it doesn’t look like a bookstore.

But step inside and you enter a colorful, dusty wonderland packed with books in dozens of languages -- Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Basque and Tagalog.

Robert Neil Jones, a tall, spry man with silver hair and bright blue eyes, is your guide. As he shows you around, he sprinkles in stories that rival any book in his store -- tales from his own life.

Oak Cliff's interpreter

Jones grew up in North Dallas and studied petroleum engineering at the University of Texas. It was there, living in a bilingual co-op, that he explored his love for Spanish -- and not long after, his love for a woman from Mexico named Maria Alicia Guerra.

“Of course, she was Mary Alice Jones, she wanted to be an American girl, and of course she spoke perfect English," Jones said.

He points to one wall with a map of Texas, a poster from Saudi Arabia, and dozens of newspaper clippings. Then there’s the yellowed marriage certificate pinned next to a photo of him in uniform -- arms around his wife. She died years ago.

Jones fought in Germany and France. And since he spoke some French and German, he became an interpreter everywhere he went.

He’s been a sort of interpreter in Oak Cliff ever since. In the 1970s, not many places were selling foreign-language books in Dallas. So Jones filled a need.

He's sold foreign language books to Dallas public schools, neighborhood kids, and people learning English.

“We’ve helped thousands of people to speak English," he says.

And not just in Texas. One time, librarians drove in from Oklahoma with a long purchase order.

From Bibles to Ricky Martin

As Jones walks around his bookstore, he winds past his typewriter, through a small kitchen and into his bedroom, where shelves of books line the walls to the ceiling.

“I put my inventory up there and I could find out at a glance whether I had a certain book on hand when we were talking on a long distance phone," he said.

He laughed.

Jones stocked everything from cassettes in Russian to romance novels, dictionaries, cookbooks, Bibles, books about Ricky Martin and French dictionaries.

Business boomed until the mid-1990s.

“It just declined, declined, declined and I got so old I couldn’t travel anymore," he said. "So here I am, and I don’t even have any teeth!”

But he still has plenty of books. Everything is now half-price and Jones says his five kids are waiting for him to send a few more books out his green front door before he closes for good. They're not interested in carrying on the tradition.

“Nobody is pressing me," Jones said, "except for the grim reaper, so to speak.”

For a little while longer, Imported Books is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. If you somehow can’t find a foreign language novel you like, then Uncle Robert might be willing to tell you a story of his own.

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.