Independent bookstores in DC reinvent bookselling during quarantine

Various stores have started book and gift packages and have expanded virtual seminars as they struggle to maintain business during the pandemic

Independent bookstores in DC reinvent bookselling during quarantine
Capitol Hill Books, a used independent bookstore in Eastern Market, has relied on online orders and book package sales to recover from lost revenues during the coronavirus pandemic.

Independent bookstores across the District can now reopen their brick and mortar stores as D.C. enters phase two of operating during COVID-19. However, over the past few months of quarantine, many local stores have adjusted to online-only formats with creative ways to provide books and seminars to customers worldwide.

Capitol Hill Books, situated in Eastern Market, has been selling “Grab Bags” of books. Customers can fill out a form detailing their budget and favorite genres. The store’s booksellers will then compile a collection of books to ship or pick up at the store.

According to Capitol Hill Books co-owner Kyle Burk, the “Grab Bags” saved the store. Several thousands have been ordered from California to Italy, Burk added.

Burk said that the store was “scrambling” when it first switched to operating virtually. The store’s inventory is “90 percent used books,” Burk said, so it’s been tough getting new inventory to fulfill such a large amount of orders. Burk said that Capitol Hill Books repurposed its warehouse so that it only contains new book orders to house any books that need to be shipped.

At the start of quarantine, Burk said there were two genres of books people ordered: escapist fantasy and mystery novels or historical nonfiction books about diseases. 

“You see how people deal with everything that’s been going on,” Burk said.

Other local stores have implemented similar gift package initiatives.

East City Bookshop, also located near Eastern Market, started selling “Stay at Home Surprise Packs.” Customers can fill out this form and select a pack ranging in price from $50, $75 to $100. After filling out supplemental information about the recipient’s desired gifts, the pack will be shipped full of stationery, art supplies, toys and more. 

The packages were created to sell non-book merchandise and help profits, said Emilie Sommer, a bookseller with East City Bookshop. Sommer added that these packages have been successful and have shipped across the country.

“This is a time where people need care packages and pick-me-ups,” Sommer said, referencing the gifts’ success.

The shop has also continued virtual book clubs and speakers that have been reaching more people. Before the store closed, the new fiction book club had about 20 people attending in person, and last week the meeting had 33 people join the Zoom call, Sommer said.

“Local bookstores rely on people being in the stores,” Sommer said. East City Bookshop was founded to make a physical space in the community where neighbors could meet neighbors and get personal book recommendations, Sommer said. She hopes that people will continue to buy from these stores so their neighborhoods can survive.

Though some independent bookstores are seeing the support of online and phone orders in the thousands, Brad Graham, the co-owner of Politics and Prose, located in Northwest D.C., The Wharf and Union Market, warns that these stores are still struggling. For his stores, Graham said revenues are down 50 percent and that there are no profits.

Politics and Prose saw a surge of online and phone orders at the start of quarantine, Graham said, but he wasn’t sure they’d be fulfilled. The number of sales exceeded the volume typically seen around the holidays in December, which Graham said is the busiest. Politics and Prose didn’t have the infrastructure to meet such high demands in the middle of a pandemic, so the store has been using costlier and more inefficient methods to meet demands, Graham said.

“Booksellers became bookshippers,” Graham said of his employees. “We’ve routed our store phone to connect callers to employees’ phones at home so they can help make orders.” 

Graham said that, despite the telework, some employees have been furloughed.

Because profits and revenue have dropped, Graham said there’s more desire to reopen the stores, which is scheduled for July 6 for the Chevy Chase location and July 7 for the Union Market and Wharf locations. But Graham said he still is expecting depressed sales as people continue to exercise caution regarding public shopping.

Politics and Prose has continued virtually offering their author talk series “P&P Live!” as well as classes. These events are having larger turnouts than they would have if held in person, Graham said, because they’re now accessible across the country.

Despite that, Graham said he’s not sure the sentiment for supporting local bookstores will last.

“I hope people realize the utility and importance of independent bookstores … and that means supporting them,” Burk said.

Bookstores are still seeing demand, Graham said, but it’s just a matter of becoming more efficient. Without small business loans from the federal government, Graham said Politics and Prose could not have sustained itself. 

“Right now, it’s a matter of survival,” Graham said.

kmcdonnell@theeagleonline.com

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