“What is this obsession people have with books? They put ‘em in their houses like they’re trophies, what do you need it for after you read it? ‘Books, books, I need my books.’”
Jerry Seinfeld poses this question to George Costanza in a 1991 episode of Seinfeld. While he’s right that a collection of books does serve as a trophy case proving a person’s mental acumen, the general disdain he has toward the very idea of owning books is one of the worst hot takes in sitcom history. Why wouldn’t you want to keep books you’ve read? Incredible stories don’t expire. Even after you’ve turned the final page, owning a copy allows you to return to the respective worlds again and again, when times are tough, slow or anywhere in between.
Purchasing novels or texts also boosts the local economy, as long as you’re shopping with indie bookstores. Undoubtedly, you’ve one-clicked on Amazon here or perused a Barnes & Noble there – and look, it happens. We’re not judging you. Hell, I’ve done it too. But luckily for us (you and me and the person you’re locked in an apartment with), the DMV houses a number of local retailers who specialize in moving books – both new and used. And like their peers in other industries, they’re morphing with the times.
The Evolving Book Business. “[Foot traffic] was our main source of business,” says Angie Sanchez, a bookseller at Old Town Books in Alexandria, Virginia. “Especially in our location, right along the water. Most of our traffic was people who hadn’t heard of us before, tourists. [Since], we have been super busy with online orders. It’s been a complete transition. We’re basically a fulfillment center now.”
Nearly all industry peers are in a similar boat, moving desks and tables around their locations to increase shipping capacity. Halls once organized and designed to shepherd people toward colorful spines and eye-catching titles are now stocked with empty cardboard boxes, packing tape, and stacks of books people bought online.
With no customers coming and going due to restrictions on nonessential businesses in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, all small bookstores have come face to face with this reality. East City Books, Politics and Prose, and Second Story Books have made similar transitions, but luckily already offered online sales.
“We’ve laid off 30 people,” says Allan Stypeck, owner of Second Story Books. “We’ve been shut down, and we have no realistic time[line] as to when it will open. It’s impacted us greatly.”
Stypeck’s business is more than a place to pick up a fascinating paperback or hardcover. The historic business touts rare texts, arts and antiques, auctions, appraisal services and a litany of other items. So far, he says they’ve been able to move several high-priced books during the quarantine, but auction and non-book sales have fallen.
A popular adjustment to combat these kinds of losses are subscription boxes or bundles, which help stores move aisle items other than books.
“These are different, and they are new,” says East City’s adult book buyer Emilie Sommer about the packs. “These are a way for us to sell non-book items people love so much. People love cards, stickers, gift books – something you’d buy for a friend. ”
East City has several options including four varieties of book subscriptions and surprise packs; Old Town Books offers themed care packages and its Book Love initiative, which allows customers to purchase one for frontline workers or children in need; and Second Story Books is selling bundles of eight books for $25 and 16 books for $50 complete with a tote bag.
Community on the Computer. Events, meetings and workshops were the first activities at the mercy of our societal changes. With social distancing went large crowds, and the majority of gatherings altogether. Politics and Prose, a local bookstore chain known for its robust calendar of in-store author events, immediately began shifting a number of already scheduled programs online via Crowdcast.
“We’ve always seen ourselves as a place where people can deal with the world by gathering,” says Sarah Costello, the deputy director of marketing at Politics and Prose. “We have a strong author events series that brings people through our doors. The quick realization that that was no longer safe for our community has definitely had an impact on our store.”
Both East City and Old Town Books have also moved offerings to virtual, whether they be book club meetings, café-writing sessions or other workshops.
However, well-curated storefronts constructed to invite people in for events or talks aren’t the only appeal of independent bookstores for locals. Each shop plays a pivotal role in their respective literary communities through active conversation. This sentiment is why Meg Ryan’s character as a small-time children’s bookstore owner in You’ve Got Mail is easier to root for than that of co-star Tom Hanks, the face of a soulless big-box competitor.
Without the face-to-face interaction, social media has become an increasingly important tool to help communicate recommendations and pointers, and East City has taken it a step further in maintaining this spirit by inviting people to text or call a hotline (202-539-2554).
“People know they can talk to someone knowledgeable who can make a recommendation an algorithm can’t,” says Sommer, the other end of the hotline. “I really like it. That’s my favorite thing to do in the store.”
Forecasting the Final Chapter. All stories require an ending, but tracking the day-to-day minutiae of Covid-19 news is a tiresome task for anyone – especially for those running small businesses. The shifting dynamics make planning nearly impossible and when it comes to the book industry, the effects are already being felt from publishers on down.
In the meantime, books provide an escape to new worlds, an opportunity to explore and learn and feel. Perhaps more importantly, these leather-bound temporary reprieves from reality connect you with an engaged community.
“I think it’s a safe way for people to escape when they need a minute to not look at Twitter or the news,” Sanchez says. “Talking about books is a great way to stay connected.”
So when you’re sitting around searching for the next opportunity to support a local business, don’t be Jerry Seinfeld. Consider a purchase from an indie book shop, and if you don’t know where to start or perhaps don’t care, they can help.
“We’re extremely devoted to our clientele,” Stypeck says. “We respect the fact that people need books and we’re not going to abandon anybody. The unity with the community is one of the only positive things we’ve gotten from this.”
To shop online with any of these stores and to see if they deliver, visit their respective websites.
Enjoy this piece? Consider becoming a member for access to our premium digital content and to get a monthly print edition delivered to your door. Support local journalism and start your membership today.