San Antonio’s Twig Book Shop founder in Pearl, Harris Smithson, has died

Harris Smithson was one of San Antonio’s most prolific bookstore owners, a legacy that began in 1972 with the first L&M textbook store behind San Antonio College and continues today with The Twig Book Shop at the Pearl.

Smithson’s story ended at his lake house in Horseshoe Bay on Sunday when he died, his daughter Shannon Oelrich and son Blake Smithson by his side, a month after being diagnosed with metastatic brain cancer. He was 76 years old.

Blake and Oelrich recall growing up surrounded and inspired by their father’s passion for books, from crawling through L&M shelves as preschoolers to napping to managing registers as teenagers to giving a help. Later, Blake delivered books while Oelrich ran one of his father’s stores.

Oelrich described his father as a champion of the independent bookstore and an accomplished person.

“I think he felt like he was just keeping the torch burning that places like Rosengren had started,” Oelrich said, referring to one of San Antonio’s first independent bookstores, now long-closed, which opened in the 1930s. “I think he wanted to keep that fire going (also with) community events. He wanted it to be a gathering place. Because he liked to get together with people.

“I feel like one of the gifts we got from him was growing up around books all the time,” Blake said. “That’s what I loved, access to information before the Internet.”

At Twig alone, bookworms and social butterflies could find common ground over author signings for Kinky Friedman and David Sedaris or bond with their children over the ever-animated Twig stories of Anastasia. McKenna, best known to her young “Twiglet” fans, Miss Anastasia.

Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the Twig has survived local booksellers such as Rosengren’s and Viva! Books as well as national chains such as Borders and Waldenbooks.

Born in Franklin, Tennessee, in 1945, Smithson first pursued medical school at the University of Alabama. But after working part-time in the college bookstore, he changed majors and schools, earning a business degree at West Kentucky University.

It was in Kentucky that Smithson’s two half-brothers opened an off-campus textbook store. When they settled in San Antonio in the early 1970s, Smithson moved here to manage the fledgling store, then bought it in 1972.

Smithson quickly moved away from textbooks to open the first Twig store, originally tucked away in the old Quadrangle Mall on Broadway just north of the 410 Loop. The Twig takes its name from a line in the 18th century British poet Alexander Pope: forms the common mind; just as the twig is bent, a tree is bent.

The Twig expanded to three locations in the 1980s, one of them in the former Higgins Bookstore space at the Arcadia Grove Center on Broadway. Smithson eventually closed two of the locations and moved the Arcadia store to a space in front of Cappy’s on Broadway, where an Alamo facade was built just for the store.

In addition to L&M and the Twig, Smithson also opened the former Red Balloon Children’s Bookstore in the Colonnade and Booksmith’s in Alamo Plaza.

Stephanie Richardson worked at several Smithson bookstores in the early to late 1980s, starting as a Twig clerk and ending as an L&M book buyer, and remained a friend of hers until her death. She noted that Smithson did more than just enjoy books. He made people fall in love with books on both sides of the counter.

“You got to observe his philosophy on a daily basis,” Richardson said. “And if you were smart, you got the cohesion, the longevity, the family atmosphere. These things do not happen by chance. It takes a special person to constantly create this environment. Not just over and over again, but over the decades.

In 1999, Smithson sold the Twig to businessman John Douglas, owner of Viva! The Twig then moved to the Pearl in 2009. Douglas died in 2014, leaving the Twig to his wife, Frannie.

Oelrich noted that his father was also an avid River Walk fan. He was president of the former Paseo del Rio association in the 1990s and he married his third wife in Casa Rio.

Oelrich said the family would hold a private memorial meeting for his father.

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Angela C. Hale