The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How do indie bookstores compete with Amazon? Personality — and a sense of community.

Solid State Books, an independent book shop on H Street NE, was started by two former staffers of Kramerbooks. (Calla Kessler/For The Washington Post)

For decades, experts have been predicting the death of small, independent bookstores. In the 1990s, the villains were mega-stores, like Barnes & Noble and Borders. The new millennium saw the rise of online bookselling, which offers far more titles and lower prices than neighborhood shops. (You know who we’re talking about, and the founder of that company also owns this newspaper.) Then came e-books, which further cut into sales.

When veteran Washington Post editor Bradley Graham and his wife, Lissa Muscatine, purchased the venerable store Politics and Prose in 2011, they painted a grim picture of the business for sellers: “Over the past 20 years, the number of independents tracked by the American Booksellers Association has fallen by about 66 percent,” Graham and Muscatine wrote in a Washington Post essay. “For those surviving today, operating margins generally remain thin, with hundreds of stores reporting no profit at all.”

Yet somehow, they appear to be thriving, especially in the capital. Over the past three years, Washingtonians have welcomed new bookstores in every quadrant of the city. Farther afield, shops have appeared from Reston to Annapolis. Pop-ups bring books to unexpected places.

Even the well-known booksellers have expanded: Dupont’s Kramerbooks took over a neighboring storefront; Alexandria’s kid-centric Hooray for Books doubled in size; Politics and Prose has opened two satellite locations, far from its Upper Northwest base, at the Wharf and Union Market.

What’s fueling this growth, sellers say, is a connection with the community instead of fighting Amazon for every dime. “There’s no universe in which I can compete with online retailers, because that’s how publishing works,” says Ally Kirkpatrick, who opened Old Town Books in a 200-year-old building near the Potomac in November. “Our competitive edge is events,” she says, whether that’s gathering two dozen people for a lively book club discussion, hosting author signings or organizing a series about the craft of writing. “I feel like everybody I meet in the shop is the right kind of customer. They want to hang out and meet other book lovers.” And, of course, chat about what they’ve read.

5 D.C. Meetup book clubs for broad and niche genres

Others see community service as a chief role. Angela Maria Spring worked as a bookseller for 18 years, spanning a Waldenbooks in her native Albuquerque to Politics and Prose, but she reexamined her life after the last election. “2016 was an intense year for people of color,” says Spring, who is of Panamanian and Puerto Rican descent. “I thought, ‘What kind of bookseller do I want to be?’­ ” Although she enjoyed her job at Politics and Prose, “I felt like I wasn’t serving my community,” she says. “I’d like to build a bookstore that centers on us and celebrates who we are as authors and readers.” The result was Duende District, a pop-up bookstore that places works by authors of color in wine bars, museums and a Union Market bodega.

What distinguishes this new wave of bookstores is that their individual personalities shine through what they share in common. Any bookstore is going to be eager to sell you a copy of Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” or Tara Westover’s “Educated” — as well as notecards, an RBG enamel badge or a pair of literary-themed socks. But each of these shops fills a distinct and different niche that brings its audience together.


Duende District

“I never wanted a traditional store,” says Angela Maria Spring, the founder of Duende District. “I wanted to play with the model.” That’s exactly what the New Mexico native is doing, curating pop-up offerings of books by and about people of color at a changing variety of unexpected spaces. She has filled two large bookcases at Walls of Books, a used bookstore in Petworth; curated a selection inside the bookshop at the National Museum of Women in the Arts; and chosen books for kids and adults at Toli Moli, a bodega inside Union Market. Most recently, she stocked a waist-high book rack inside Dio, a woman-owned wine bar on H Street NE. “For me, it’s important that the business is serving a very specific part of the community that isn’t being tapped,” Spring explains.

The selection varies by location: Dio has romance novels and new fiction, while Toli Moli’s titles lean toward the Asian diaspora and books by foodies, such as chef Edward Lee. For Spring, this is part of the appeal of pop-ups and temporary spaces. “We can take it anywhere, into any community,” Spring says. “It’s as big or small as you want it, but you can get a rich amount of books in there.”

Multiple locations: Dio Wine Bar, 904 H St. NE; National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW; Toli Moli, 1309 Fifth St. NE; Walls of Books, 3325 Georgia Ave. NW.

East City Bookshop

The line of strollers begins building well before story time in the mornings on Tuesdays and Fridays, stretching up and down the passageway outside East City Bookshop’s front doors. Inside, parents and caregivers watch as small children determinedly climb the shop’s wide stairs or settle onto the floor with a book. It’s evidence of how much East City, which opened in April 2016, has become part of the Capitol Hill community. It’s a place where residents drop in to pick up the latest bestseller or grab a cute gift, such as journals, literary-themed socks or enamel pins. A variety of book clubs include those for readers in their 20s and 30s (e.g., the CHILLY Ps, or the Capitol Hill Interesting Literature League for Young Professionals), a social-justice club, and groups just for teens and tweens. Covering similar topics: the W(h)ine & Angst Book Club, for those over 21 who want to discuss books for or about teenagers with a glass of red or white in hand.

645 Pennsylvania Ave. SE.

Loyalty Bookstore

Hannah Oliver Depp created a buzz on the Washington bookstore scene over the holidays, launching Loyalty Bookstore as a pop-up in Silver Spring at a former barbecue restaurant, filling it with books, children gathered for story times, and a variety of giftable items from local makers, including prints and stationery. Now Depp, who previously worked at Politics and Prose and the Word Bookstore in Brooklyn and Jersey City, is taking on a bigger task: Rebooting Petworth’s Upshur Street Books as Loyalty. “Community-building through bookselling is my passion,” she says. “I want Loyalty to look more like Petworth. I want there to be a really diverse selection of books, but reflect the full scope of what people in Petworth love.” As she did in Silver Spring, she expects to stock plenty of nonbook items. On Saturdays, Depp explains, a lot of the sales are what she calls “shower gifts”: board books for kids, plus cards, knickknacks and a bag to put everything in. “I’m not competing with Amazon,” she says. “I’m competing with people’s time.”

Where Upshur Street struggled to find its voice, she says, she thinks that Loyalty can become a neighborhood destination. There will be more children’s events, author appearances and book clubs, such as one looking at intersectional romance and one called “Pages Against the Patriarchy.” She plans on partnerships with the neighboring restaurant Petworth Citizen. The weekly Literary Cocktails series, which finds veteran bartender Chantal Tseng creating a menu of drinks inspired by a new or classic book, might expand to feature Tseng’s selection from the bookstore in the week leading up to the tasting, and Depp is also thinking about a literary-themed brunch, too.

For those mourning Loyalty’s departure from Silver Spring, Depp says she’s still working on a permanent space downtown with a full bar or cafe. “We have an eye on a couple of spaces, but it’s a struggle.”

827 Upshur St. NW.

Mahogany Books

After a decade of operating Mahogany Books as an online bookstore selling titles “for, by, or about people of the African diaspora,” Derrick Young and Ramunda Lark Young opened a shop inside the Anacostia Arts Center in November 2017. The first bookstore east of the Anacostia River to open in more than two decades, it’s heavily stocked with materials targeted at children, which is important in a neighborhood considered a book desert. Mahogany also gives back, with an annual book drive called Books for the Block.

Young readers aren’t the only ones who benefit: Mahogany features a schedule of author events and networking socials. In October, the store launched a monthly book club with the popular blog Very Smart Brothas, which is part of They’ll tackle Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s engrossing short-story collection “Heads of the Colored People” on March 1.

1231 Good Hope Rd. SE.

Bookstores by and for people of color are finding their industry niche

Old Fox Books

Old Fox is a quirky bookstore. Visitors open a squeaky door and negotiate creaking floorboards before making it to a front table where the Teddy Roosevelt-inspired “Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King” sits near Hanif Abdurraqib’s love letter to A Tribe Called Quest, “Go Ahead in the Rain.” But Old Fox, which takes its name from a sobriquet for George Washington, isn’t the average bookstore: Owner Jinny Amundson estimates that 35 percent of the store’s sales are new books, while the rest are vintage and used books. Because it’s on a historic street between the Maryland State House and the U.S. Naval Academy, books on American history and maritime topics do well, though there’s a well-stocked philosophy section to cater to the students from nearby St. John’s College. “The Johnnies think this is their bookstore, and the Mids think that this is their bookstore,” Amundson says, laughing.

Old Fox fills two floors of a Colonial-era building, connected by a spiral staircase. It’s also a shrine for Harry Potter fans: Note the “signed” photo of Gilderoy Lockhart in the bathroom, and see if you can find the horcruxes hidden throughout. In the rear is Brown Mustache Coffee, where book browsers can collect a flat white or cup of tea, and then settle into a leather armchair in front of a brick fireplace. (Fez, the shop’s chonky resident Bernese mountain dog, may be sleeping nearby.) The long communal table is used for teleworking during the day and hosts book clubs in the evenings. “Every town deserves a spot like ours,” Amundson says, and it’s hard to disagree.

35 Maryland Ave., Annapolis.

Old Town Books

Ally Kirkpatrick never thought she’d own a bookstore, even though, she explains, “I’m one of those people who’ve always been obsessed with independent bookstores.” In November, Old Town Books opened in a cozy, light-filled space near the Torpedo Factory, and it’s technically a pop-up, on a short-term lease while Kirkpatrick hunts for a permanent location. (She says she’s “90 percent sure” she’s found another space nearby, which she hopes to open in May.) Old Town Books stocks many of the general-interest titles that appear on bestseller lists, though Kirkpatrick hopes customers stumble across titles they didn’t know they needed. “I’ve always been surprised by what I found in small indie bookstores. They’re so different from what I would usually read.”

Regardless of the location, Kirkpatrick has big plans for Old Town Books, including a literary festival in August. Old Town Books continues to host book clubs, concerts and talks. Kirkpatrick is also scheduling events that are “more than just coming and doing a reading,” such as a series called Read Write Now, which includes a discussion with an author about writing, group writing prompts and a Q&A session. Abby Maslin, who turned a series of blog posts about her husband’s traumatic brain injury into a just-released memoir, is the guest on March 30.

104 S. Union St., Alexandria.

One More Page Books

Independent booksellers know that authenticity will help them stand out in a crowded field. At One More Page, an eight-year-old bookstore in East Falls Church, “We’re not shy about expressing our personalities,” says store book buyer Lelia Nebeker. This comes through in a variety of ways: its Boozy Booksellers YouTube series, which finds Nebeker and store events coordinator Rebecca Speas acting silly and enjoying drinks while chatting with authors on camera; its in-store book recommendations, such as Lyndsay Faye’s “Jane Steele,” which reimagines Jane Eyre as a serial killer (“murder and feminism — that covers us,” Nebeker says, laughing); and its book clubs, including the Romance Roundtables, which pair wine tastings and Q&As with contemporary romance authors. “We want to make romance seem a little more accessible, and destigmatize it from being a guilty pleasure.” (The next roundtable is March 1.)

One More Page is also supporting the next generation of readers: It’s a co-founder and sponsor of the NoVa Teen Book Festival, a six-year-old literary festival focused on young adult literature. Last year saw 9,000 readers show up at Washington-Lee High School to hear 40 authors speak on panels and participate in breakout discussions. This year’s free festival will be at George Marshall High School on March 30.

2200 N. Westmoreland St., Arlington.

Solid State Books

Jake Cumsky-Whitlock and Scott Abel met while working at Kramerbooks, where Abel was the general manager and Cumsky-Whitlock was the store’s head buyer. They’ve gone out on their own with the introduction of Solid State, an open and welcoming shop that sits alongside Whole Foods on the vibrant H Street NE corridor.

Books are not necessarily arranged by topic — don’t be surprised to see “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” next to Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant or the locally focused “Chocolate City” on display tables — but that only encourages shoppers to spend more time browsing. Prime seats in the front windows or at long tables encourage lingering with a cup of coffee or a craft beer. (Taking a cue from Kramerbooks, happy hour runs from 4 to 7 p.m. on weekdays.) Book clubs cover the spectrum: foreign policy, poetry, works related to Rorschach Theater’s current season, and Music Graphic Novels, which adds audio and video clips to the mix.

600 H St. NE.


Hooray for Books

No recommendation algorithm can beat the booksellers at Alexandria’s venerable Hooray for Books. Owner Ellen Klein opened the shop in 2008 and saw it double in size in 2015. Now, “because we’re 11 years old, we’ve seen children grow up from being in strollers to being taller than I am,” she says. “We know their names — we can say, ‘Hey, Patrick, here’s a great book for you!’ They trust us, and we make them feel vested.”

Years ago, Klein started the Youth Advisory Council, which provides advance copies of books to students from elementary-school-age through high school. They read and serve as a focus group, Klein says: “They tell us, ‘Buy a lot of this one,’ or ‘Don’t buy this, no one’s going to like it.’ ” Reviews are published in the store’s newsletter.

Hooray for Books has popular weekday and weekend story times, which bring in 20 to 30 kids and give parents a chance to socialize, as well as author events that can draw hundreds of fans. The expansion allowed Klein to expand a section of the store with new bestsellers and history books, but the store’s focus remains on children.

1555 King St. Alexandria.

Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe

A fixture in Dupont Circle for more than four decades, Kramerbooks remains one of the most important bookstores for both sides of Washington: The political cognoscenti lined up here for the midnight release of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” and other topical tell-alls — “Harry Potter for adults,” observed one late-night customer — while generations of Washingtonians have spent first or second dates browsing the shelves and getting to know each other over drinks and snacks at the in-house cafe. Under new owner Steven Salis, the co-founder of &pizza, Kramerbooks expanded into a neighboring storefront in 2018.

1517 Connecticut Ave. NW.

Politics and Prose

As it approaches 35 years in business, Politics and Prose has become a Washington landmark. Over that time,the store has organized a staggering number of readings, from local authors with a few dozen fans on upper Connecticut Avenue to Kamala D. Harris or José Andrés at a sold-out Lisner Auditorium. (J.K. Rowling signed books back in 1999.) Twenty-two book clubs are sponsored by P&P, with themes including graphic novels, lesbian writers, travelogues and horror. Its basement cafe, the Den, is a gathering place with coffee, pastries and wine.

Not content to rest on these laurels, however, Politics and Prose opened two branches, at the Wharf and Union Market, in the fall of 2017, looking beyond leafy Northwest to growing retail areas. “We were motivated by the shifting of the center of gravity from Northwest to Northeast and Southwest D.C.,” co-owner Bradley Graham says. “There’s housing stock being renovated, new buildings going up and people with disposable income going in.”

Three locations: 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; 70 District Sq. SW; 1270 Fifth St. NE.

Sankofa Video, Books and Cafe

Located across the street from Howard University, Sankofa was opened by husband-and-wife filmmakers Haile and Shirikiana Gerima in 1997 to showcase books and films from Africans and African Americans. It’s particularly strong in biography, history and fiction, and the children’s section is packed with inspirational board books and coloring books. More than just a place to read, Sankofa sponsors weekly jazz performances, and the cafe offers panini, wraps and salads named after filmmakers.

2714 Georgia Ave. NW.