When Barnes and Noble closed its last store in Washington, D.C., in late 2015, the city became the largest in America without a bookstore chain outlet. For readers who, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, spend the most per capita on reading materials in the country, it was the latest blow in a decadelong string of closures that also laid waste to the city’s independent bookstores, including all nine locations of Olsson’s Books and Music, the LGBTQ standard Lambda Rising, and the popular downtown haunt Chapters.
In the Capitol Hill neighborhood, the 2009 closure of Trover Shop Bookstore hit resident Laurie Gillman hard. “It was the low point for independent bookstores in the city and there was no bookstore for people in Capitol Hill,” she says. A longtime participant in community groups, she couldn’t believe that one of the city’s most ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods couldn’t sustain a bookstore. “I got really obsessed,” she says. Then she set about opening East City Bookshop.
Gillman is not alone. Across the city, a resurgence of independent bookselling is underway, with veteran booksellers following in Gillman’s footsteps and returning to neighborhoods that have been without bookstores for a generation. Scott Abel and Jake Cumsky-Whitlock left senior positions at D.C.’s Kramerbooks Afterwords Cafe in 2017, but they weren’t ready to leave bookselling or Washington. “We have as much indie bookselling experience as anyone,” Abel says. “It’s what we know and what we love. We felt that we shouldn’t just throw it away.”
They started looking across the city at potential locations where they could open a store without hurting fellow independent booksellers’ bottom line. The northeast NoMa neighborhood is where they settled, where a location was available with a café, a vegetarian restaurant, bicycle shop, and Whole Foods all next door. With easy access to public transit, ample parking, and plenty of space to host events in-store, the two quickly turned to raising capital to secure the location.
Using an increasingly popular method of fund-raising, they offered long-term, low-interest loan shares to potential investors. With 72 investors from 22 states, along with their own savings, they are set to open Solid State Books at the end of 2017.
Abel and Cumsky-Whitlock aren’t the only booksellers looking to open in the northeast district. Politics and Prose, one of the city’s oldest independent bookstores, announced its own plans earlier this year to open a second store in the growing Union Market complex, a mixed-use redevelopment. Nor is that the only news from Politics and Prose, which has also announced an expansion of the flagship store and recently opened a third location in a multibillion-dollar redevelopment of the city’s wharf in the southeast district.
“We see parts of D.C. that are undergoing phenomenal growth and redevelopment—parts of the city that people had talked for years about someday making a turn,” says Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics and Prose. “They’ve made a turn and they’re taking off. These are areas where the housing stock has been improved and people with higher education levels and higher incomes have moved in.”
The return of bookstores is linked to high-end development across Washington that is not without its consequences. Solid State and Politics and Prose are both moving into historically African-American, lower-income neighborhoods. Gillman says that the community feel of these neighborhoods is what drew her to Capitol Hill a quarter century ago: “It was set out on a more human scale than other neighborhoods. It kind of felt like the little Texas town I grew up with.”
Gentrification has moved so swiftly, Gillman says, it was almost impossible to find a lease before a wave of chain stores and restaurants boxed her out: “Landlords wouldn’t talk to me. Everybody wanted a restaurant, and rents were going up.” When she finally located a 3,200-sq.-ft. space, Gillman says, she had a frank conversation with the landlord, “about my community and books and what they could do together.” He was convinced, and she opened her doors in April 2016.
With a staff of 15, Gillman has 200 members in a loyalty program and is working to push back and preserve a cultural part of the neighborhood she loves. Local authors Jason Reynolds and Kwame Alexander have lent their support, dropping in to sign books and making it clear that the bookstore is an essential community resource. The result, says Gillman, is that people in the community seek out the bookstore, and revenue is up 22% on average, month-over-month compared with the first year.
As newcomers to NoMa, Solid State is opening where it is because of the longstanding diversity of the neighborhood, which the owners see as essential to the success of the store. “We were interested in having a more diverse clientele, both socioeconomically and racially,” Abel says. If all turns out as planned, he hopes that the store will be a hub for “people who lived there a long time, families, newcomers, and kids, the same way a grocery store would be.” The greatest opportunity, he adds, lies in the potential to become home to D.C.-focused neighborhood events and conversations with authors, artists, and intellectuals leading conversations on history, music, and the arts in Washington.
For Politics and Prose, a longstanding ethic is helping guide the bookstore’s move into Union Market, says children’s buyer Mary Alice Garber, who notes that it all comes from her predecessor, longtime children’s buyer Jewell Stoddard, who retired in 2013. “Jewell always made sure she was reflecting so many diverse voices,” Garber says.
Stoddard’s inclusive approach left a lasting mark on Garber and children’s manager Donna Wells. As they help ready the Union Market store, the two have sought connections with local schools, held meetings to understand the students they serve, and forged partnerships to bring authors into the neighborhood. Along with 13 other booksellers, they are also taking a 15-week sign language course so that they can better serve the deaf and hard of hearing students from Gallaudet University.
At the Wharf location, Graham says he’s excited by the opportunity to expand in three areas of the city at once. At the same time, he acknowledges the need to be cautious. The Wharf and Union Market spaces both have short-term leases, and both are much smaller than the main store, so he can ensure they are as good a fit as he hopes they will be.
“We’re very mindful of what happened to Olsson’s,” Graham says. “They got overextended and couldn’t withstand the stress of the recession when it hit in 2008. We certainly don’t want that to happen to P and P, so we have no plans to grow much beyond these additional branches.”
Abel and Cumsky-Whitlock say that the potential risks should not deter indies from heralding a new era of bookselling in the city. “There are fewer bookstores in D.C. than 15 years ago, even though there are more people living here,” Abel says. “We’re not opening fitness studios or yoga shops. We feel like the city could use 10 more bookstores.”