Indie bookstores see revival in D.C.

The H Street pop-up for Solid State Books is among several independent bookstores opening in Washington in the past few years. Solid State hopes to open its permanent location, also on H Street, soon. (Photos by Hannah Monicken)

The Solid State Books pop-up on H Street in Washington isn’t brimming with customers on this rainy Monday morning, but it’s also not empty. A couple of women with their young children stand in the corner that houses the children’s books and a man with a drying umbrella mills around the general fiction shelves on the opposite wall.

The rain might actually have helped, said Jake Cumsky-Whitlock, one of Solid State’s owners. People want to get out of the rain, and where better to spend the time than in a bookstore?

Solid State is one of several new or expanded independent bookstores cropping up in Washington in the past few years. East City Bookshop opened in Eastern Market in 2016, Upshur Street Books appeared in Petworth in 2014 and Mahogany Books — the first bookstore east of the Anacostia River in two decades — opened last year.

Print book sales are on the rise. Sales in 2016 were 3 percent higher than in 2015, and 2017 sales were 2 percent higher than in 2016, according to Forbes. Sales of ebooks, once thought to be print-book killers, have either held steady or dropped slightly. It’s a far cry from the dire opinion pieces of the early 2010s predicting that print would go the way of the vinyl record or VHS tape within a few years.

“The D.C. metropolitan area has been a good example of the resurgence of independent bookstores,” said Oren Teicher, CEO of American Booksellers Association, which represents bookstores across the country. “It is certainly a good example of how indie bookstores and even neighborhood bookstores can not only survive, but thrive.”

Jewish booksellers like Cumsky-Whitlock and Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine, the married owners of Washington institution Politics & Prose, have found themselves part of a heartening trend. Solid State anticipates opening its permanent location — a few doors down from its pop-up at 600 H St. NE — in the next month and Politics & Prose has added two new locations. The one in rapidly gentrifying Southwest’s Wharf development opened last fall and the Union Market store comes in June.

Politics & Prose at The Wharf opened last year, with another location at Union Market slated to open in June.

The elephant in the room, of course, is giant online retailer Amazon, which accounts for around 50 percent of print book sales. Independent bookstores sit at less than 10 percent. But with sales for indie stores going up 5 percent in 2016, according to Nielson, the outlook is better than it was.

And what it was was “a pretty bleak time” for the book business, said Graham, who, with Muscatine, acquired Politics & Prose in 2011. People told them they were crazy to be buying a bookstore then, he added. Borders, the national chain, had just shuttered and e-readers were proving a dominant market force, with the percentage of adults who owned one jumping 10 percent from 2011 to 2012, according to online market research portal Statista.

“In 2011 there was still a lot of concern about the future of physical books and independent bookstores,” Graham said. “The [book] business had suffered through two decades of really precipitous decline in independent bookstores.”

But the demise of Borders was actually a blessing in disguise. The closing of hundreds of Borders bookstores left a landscape of book deserts and independent bookstores were able to step in.

Teicher also pointed to the “buy local” movement as a boost for small businesses in general, not just independent bookstores. People now seek out their neighborhood or locally-owned bookstores to support, he said.

And while e-readers are still popular, physical books have not come close to extinction.

“We spend so much time on our screens as it is,” Cumsky-Whitlock said. “There’s a reason the book in its physical form has been around for thousands of years. There’s something about that tactile feeling.”

This isn’t entirely a literary feel-good story, however. Independent bookstores still face a number of challenges. There are the general difficulties of running a small business — rising rent, minimum wage increases, etc. — but, unlike most retail stores, book prices are fixed and printed on the books themselves, so booksellers have to find other ways to make up money if operational costs go up.

And all booksellers worry about Amazon. The retail giant is now even making a play for the brick-and-mortar audience. It opened a book store in Georgetown and has plans for another in Bethesda Row.

But Graham and Cumsky-Whitlock both said they aim to create spaces that offer more than just books, a move that is driven as much by philosophical goals as business ones. They ascribe to the idea of neighborhood bookstores as a “third place” that is not home or work, but an important meeting place for the local community.

“It’s a common refrain that as bookstores, we exist not just to sell books,” Graham said. “We serve a larger mission, which is to be gathering places in our communities, be forums for discussion and exchange of ideas, and as kind of havens for people to get away from home and office.”

Bookstores have diversified in another play for long-term sustainability. Owners have made their bookstores more than just physical venues at which to buy books. Politics & Prose is known for its big-name authors who come to speak in the space between the shelves. Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle has a popular bar and café. Solid State Books is planning a children’s play area and story times.

“The sense of place, the sense of community is real [in independent bookstores] across the country,” Teicher said.

Graham said Politics & Prose has had record sales in the seven years they’ve owned the store.

Independent bookstores often take on personalities based on their local communities, Cumsky-Whitlock said, since it’s the community that influences what types of books sellers stock and what kind of events they hold. At Politics & Prose, for example, Graham said nonfiction is a top-seller. Not just big names like the recent “Fire and Fury” or James Comey book, but second- and third-tier nonfiction all do well there.

“I love that each [bookstore] has its own personality,” said Cumsky-Whitlock, who spent many years at Kramerbooks. “Even in the same city, independent bookstores can have really different feels.”

That rainy Monday did turn partially sunny. But the Solid State pop-up still managed to acquire a couple more lingering customers, ready to leave their mark.

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