Independent bookstores are accustomed to adapting and weathering storms, namely competition from large-scale franchises and online book retailers over the past few decades. Today, several shops in the DMV are working to overcome new challenges from Covid-19 and, in light of the recent resurgence in the national spotlight of the Black Lives Matter movement, are doubling down on their commitment to diversity.
“We have flipped the script,” says Hannah Oliver Depp, owner of Loyalty Bookstore. “If you walk into most bookstores, even liberal ones, the representation on the shelves is very tokenized, instead of being a full breadth of representation.”
Oliver Depp makes an intentional effort to focus on diverse and minority literature at Loyalty Bookstore’s Petworth and Silver Spring locations.
“The books on the shelves are from ‘own voice’ authors, meaning the book is written by [the identity types of] person(s) who are featured in the book,” she explains.
It’s not easy stocking shelves with diverse literature, but independent bookstores have unique footing.
“As a bookstore owner, you have a significantly louder voice in the publisher community to be able to say, ‘we need more of this, we need more of these books,’” Oliver Depp says. “We are trying to put pressure on the industry from [the] inside to publish a greater number of incredible authors from these communities.”
The role of the independent bookstore owner doesn’t end with placing the book on the shelves; there’s a lot of marketing behind the scenes.
“Bookstores play a unique role in the sale life of a book, because while brick-and-mortar stores or online stores like Target or Amazon push a book the first two weeks after it is published, we as independent bookstores are interested in the life of the book,” Oliver Depp adds. “We care about books that are 3 years old, 6 months old, 10 years and 100 years old. We just care about great books.”
A book older than 100 years on a shelf might be hard to imagine for some. But for Adam Waterreus, owner of used bookstore Lost City Books in Adams Morgan, that’s the norm.
“We have books from the mid-19th century, and we have used books that just came in recently,” he says.
So how does one determine the shelf life of an old book?
“I keep things as long as I feel I should based on what I think my customers want and what the community might want to see on our shelves, and what makes us a place people want to spend time in,” Waterreus adds. “It’s kind of a loose criteria. I think what is really magical about a used bookstore is the sense of time or timelessness to books. There’s this element of surprise and discovery that is harder to replicate in all new bookstores.”
Being innovative in these times is a requirement for all small business owners, and independent bookstores are no exception.
“I barely had a website when we had to shut down,” says Julia Fleischaker, owner of Greedy Reads in Baltimore’s Fells Point and Remington neighborhoods. “It was just a placeholder so people could find our address and phone number. Like most independent bookstores, I had to transform our business model completely; we went from being completely focused on the in-store experience to learning how to sell books online. We put up a shoppable website and spent a few weeks getting used to operating as a de facto fulfillment center. Once we’d gotten our feet wet with that, we were able to get a little more creative.”
Bookstores around the DMV are putting in the work to stay relevant with new offerings, from themed book bundles and weekend sidewalk sales to author talks and virtual book clubs. To encourage your curiosity and aptitude for supporting local small and minority-owned businesses, we asked these book experts to share their top five reads for the moment.
15 Summer Reads
Hannah Oliver Depp of Loyalty Bookstore
“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi
“This is the best novel published in the last decade. In 320 pages, Gyasi gives us family history starting in 18th century Ghana to America in the present day. Follow the family through the generations, guided by her gifted narrative hand and learn to gain understanding and empathy through fiction.”
“Magical Negro” by Morgan Parker
“Parker is one of our best living writers and tweeters. What a combo. Her poetry collections meet both the sacredness of the form with the natural integration of our everyday lives. Her latest collection addresses the trope of the Magical Negro and sees through it to the Blackness beyond whiteness.”
“There Will Be No Miracles Here” by Casey Gerald
“Gerald writes this memoir with a clarity and precision that makes each sentence tattoo itself onto your brain. The myth of American exceptionalism and self-made success are ripped open to reveal the systematic oppression that creates trophies and examples out of some. He details his transition from the token good Black person, leading an isolating life of lies, to one who fully embraces [his] fellow human and ultimately himself.”
“Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler
“Butler is our queen. This brilliant woman’s work in this duology (starting with ‘Parable of the Sower,’ finishing in ‘Parable of the Talents’) takes the full history of Black life in America and projects into 2020; plagued by greed, a collapsing environment and social chaos (yeah, not so far-fetched, huh?) The series imagines a future led by empathy, showing why the Black imagination is needed for us to build a better world.”
“The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin
“This slim book could have been written today, which should stun you since it was written in the earlier years of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., showing how little has changed in the systematic roots of oppression. It’s a great intro to Baldwin’s work (read all of it if you can). The love he has for America plus the abuse of its people leads to ‘Fire’s’ searing indictment.”
Adam Waterreus of Lost City Books
“Deacon King Kong” by James McBride
“[This book] is a wonderful mix of humor and history and brilliant storytelling of Brooklyn in 1969, [during] the emergence of heroin and convergence of crime families, and this strange event that happens in the housing projects. Really beautiful novel.”
“Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency” by Olivia Laing
“This is a collection of her short essays with a mix of personal contemplative essays about her own life and short profiles about artists. It is this wonderful collection of her writing, which is funny, thoughtful and intellectual and worth reading.”
“Figure It Out: Essays” by Wayne Koestenbaum
“It’s a hilarious and brilliant essay collection that I really enjoy. I feel like he writes a lot about art, but these essays turn personal. His clichés sound ‘LOL’ funny. His issues with writers’ block and getting things done to losing his glasses and exploring the shapes of what an essay is and writing about different art periods within the essay itself. It is really great and funny. Plus, his Instagram presence is pretty wacky, too.”
“Night Sky With Exit Wounds” by Ocean Vuong
“We were reading this for our queer book club and it is just a heart-rending collection of poetry, but also incredibly powerful with invocative language, and is very accessible to anyone who wants to dive into poetry.”
“Hurricane Season” by Fernanda Melchor
“[This is a] really incredible book by a young Mexican writer about a town on the Gulf Coast of Mexico where all these crimes and murders occur. The story is told in this murder mystery-esque way, with intense, captivating and unique language that captures the mood of this place; without hope or change.”
Julia Fleischaker of Greedy Reads
“Luster” by Raven Leilani
“[This book] is brutal, sharp, slightly chaotic and great for anyone who loved ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ or ‘Queenie.’ This is the book, and Leilani is the author, everyone is going to be talking about.”
“Self Care” by Leigh Stein
“[This] is just the thing for these hot summer days. Richual, the ‘inclusive online community platform for women to cultivate the practice of self-care’ is a ripe target for social satire, and Stein sticks the knives in plentifully.”
“Here for It” by R. Eric Thomas
“Reading [this book] is like being at one of these perfect dinner parties (remember dinner parties?) where nobody wants to get up and say goodnight. The writing goes from hilarious to heartbreaking without missing a beat; the only part I didn’t like was saying goodbye to Thomas when I finished the book.”
“Hood Feminism” by Mikki Kendall
“[This book] serves as a critique of feminism as the movement exists today, and a corrective to its narrow focus. Kendall argues, in these emotional and persuasive essays, that feminism can’t move society forward until it addresses the needs of all women, including the women the movement has long ignored.”
“A Burning” by Megha Majumdar
“You’ll burn through ‘A Burning,’ maybe in one sitting. Majumdar illuminates the workings of society by focusing on three characters in present day India. It reads like a thriller, but you’ll be thinking about these characters, and the book, for a long time.”
Loyalty Bookstores Petworth: 843 Upshur St. NW, DC
Loyalty Bookstore Silver Spring: 823 Ellsworth Dr. Silver Spring, MD; www.loyaltybookstores.com
Lost City Books: 2467 18th St. NW, DC; www.lostcitybookstore.com
Greedy Reads Fells Point: 1744 Aliceanna St. Baltimore, MD
Greedy Reads Remington: 320 W. 29th St. Baltimore, MD; www.greedyreads.com
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