As you walk into the bright blue, orange and yellow building at 1901 Colima, don’t be surprised to see a giraffe kindly smiling down upon you.After making its acquaintance, you will quickly spot the rest of the animals – the baboons, the elephant, the toucan and the hippo – surrounded by vines that hang from top to bottom.And then you realize you have just stepped inside the friendliest jungle ever. Or is it?
Welcome to Hippos, a West Side tiendita that has been around since 1939, and lately has been attracting admirers with its jungle-themed décor and zoo-like atmosphere, which owner and artist Ronald Rocha, 70, created when he purchased the store in October 2010.
“I really didn’t see myself getting into a grocery store,” Rocha said, adding that he chose the West Side location because he wanted to live near downtown after moving from Somerset. “The more I went through the negotiations with the previous owner of Hippos I started to realize some of the history of the store. It was an established business and it was aimed at kids.”
Before acquiring the store, the San Antonio native had memories of old grocery stores on the West Side, where owners lived at the back of the store. This type of living arrangement interested him because he wanted to use the front room as an art studio. “I was looking to get something like that because I wouldn’t have to worry about paint on the floor,” Rocha said. “I knew if I was to get a newer house with carpets I couldn’t do what I wanted to do because I’m into sculpture, painting and wood carving.”
When Rocha purchased Hippos, he envisioned a great art studio because the ceilings were high enough for his easels, and it was spacious enough for him to work. After moving in, neighborhood children, mainly from Barkley/Ruiz Elementary, and teens kept knocking on his door asking if the store was open. After seeing so many of them come by, Rocha decided to put his talent to work to capture their interest, and, after being inspired by the name “Hippos,” he transformed the store into an indoor rainforest. Even the porch posts are made out of branches, which he got after helping his friend cut down a tree in his yard.
Neighbor Michelle Patlan, 24, recalls going to Hippos after school with a friend to buy snacks. “The look of it has changed a lot since then, but it’s a very cool change,” she said. “I really like how it looks so much like a store designed specifically for little kids, especially since the elementary school is down the street.”
Patlan has taken her 7-year-old daughter, Alyssa Ortega, to Hippos on many occasions to see what it looks like inside. “I like it because it has the animals painted, and it looks like a small jungle in there,” Ortega said. “Not all the stores we go to look like that.”
Today, Hippos offers ice cream, chips, sodas – and children’s books for sale although at first Rocha wasn’t sure what type of merchandise to stock. “I had a friend who had some small kids, and I had purchased a bunch of books from him,” Rocha said. “So I placed the books on top of the counter to fill in. The first kid who walked in bought three books for 25 cents apiece. As more children started coming to the store, Rocha would ask them what they were looking to purchase. “I started getting asked for books on science, sharks and different things. So I started going to the garage sales and picking up different books,” he said.
Now Rocha’s countertops are stacked with books ranging from picture books to young adult novels. He also has a very friendly system with the kids. He sells the books for 25 cents to 75 cents apiece with the condition that if they read the book and keep it in good condition, they can sell it back for half of what they paid. Then they can buy another book. “That’s been working pretty good,” Rocha said.
With true devotion to art, Rocha has also started providing art classes on Saturday mornings at 9:30. “I charge the kids $2 an hour, and I charge the adults $10 an hour,” he said. “The class may run an hour or two depending on what the involvement becomes or the participation of the kids who show up.”
Rocha’s new image of the store has certainly left the neighborhood in amazement. “I have people come in saying ‘I used to come here in the ‘40s. I’m 70 years old. Now I’m bringing my grandkids.’ I get a lot of that,” he saiP.
Posted 9/12/2011 | Updated 11/03/2011