If there was ever anyone who could talk to the animals, it's this guy.
How do independent bookstores survive in the digital age?
Independent bookstores have become a part of the social fabric of communities in and around the District. We’ll discuss how local shops use programs and personality to stay relevant and keep bookworms coming through their doors.
Former owner of Upshur Street Books Paul Ruppert, owner of One More Page Eileen McGervey, and director of operations for Politics and Prose Jenny Clines join the conversation. Plus, Derrick Young, co-owner of Mahogany Books and Leah Ly, manager of Fantom Comics talk about serving specific communities in the literary world.
Produced by Kayla Hewitt
- Paul Ruppert Owner, Petworth Citizen, Upshur St. Books, Slim's Diner; Partner, Room 11
- Eileen McGervey Owner, One More Page Books in Arlington, VA.
- Derrick Young Co-owner, Mahogany Books
- Jenny Clines Director of Operations, Politics and Prose
- Leah Ly Manager, Fantom Comics
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. After hitting an all-time low in 2009, the number of independent bookstores across the country has skyrocketed. The Washington area has its own collection of eclectic indie bookstores that have made themselves part of the fabric of local communities and more often than not are making an effort to actually foster authentic communities. Joining us to discuss the role that independent bookstores are playing in our neighborhoods is Paul Ruppert. He is the former owner of Upshur St. Books. Paul, good to see you again.
PAUL RUPPERTGood to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIJenny Clines is Director of Operations at Politics and Prose. Jenny Clines, thank you for joining us.
JENNY CLINESThank you for having us.
NNAMDIEileen McGervey is owner of One More Pages Books. Eileen, thank you.
EILEEN MCGERVEYMy pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd Derrick Young is co-owner of Mahogany Books. Derrick, thank you for joining us.
DERRICK YOUNGThank you.
NNAMDIPaul, you've been credited for building up the neighborhood of Petworth through opening us several independent businesses including Upshur St. Books, which recently became Loyalty Books. How do you participate in building a community through business?
RUPPERTSo it's really important to pay attention to what's happening in the neighborhood and who lives there and who visits there. And so we do a lot of research in connection to people before we would open a business. And so when we opened Upshur St. Books, five years ago, we had already had several businesses in the Petworth. And there seemed to be that demand and interest in independent retail. And books really fit that need.
NNAMDIEileen, what is it about bookstores that makes them such an ideal community gathering place?
MCGERVEYI think, because people who read books and are interested in books tend to be very thoughtful about their choices that they make including supporting local businesses and talking with their neighbors and wanting to be part of community. I think that's just something about readers that they -- even though many of us are introverts, we love the opportunity and the excuse to talk about books that we love.
NNAMDIWe love hanging out with other introverts.
NNAMDIWhere do you go to feel connected to your community? Give us a call. Derrick Young, for 10 years, your shop Mahogany Books was an online store. Why was it important for you to open up a brick and mortar location?
YOUNGBecause the experience. I think even all those 10 years of running this online store we really understood that you couldn't get that kind of experience online. The ability to talk to other people about books or to, you know, walk into a space that really kind of reflected a certain type of energy. So it really became paramount for us to create a space that allowed people to experience it.
NNAMDIWhy did you decide to open your store in Anacostia?
YOUNGWell, just like Paul it's doing the research. You know, one of the things you have to look at is where your customer is at and where is the need most credible at. So for us, Anacostia, plus it's where I'm from. So that helped out a lot as well.
NNAMDIJane emails, I was lucky enough to work as a bookseller at Bard's Deli in Vienna. And I saw firsthand how the space inside a bookstore is pure magic. No matter what's going on in the outside world, no matter your political beliefs, religion, or experience people, who visit independent bookstores have a common love for reading, learning, and books. I loved working with customers who were excited about books they had read and wanted to make sure we recommended to others. Paul, you are more known for your restaurant businesses around the city. What made you want to open up a bookstore?
RUPPERTI've always loved bookstores. I think bookstores are integral to building culture and community in cities. And I could see five years ago there was this resurgence across the country of these small independent bookstores opening in other places. And I thought that, you know, Petworth and D.C. in general could support several new bookstores. And that's why it's so exciting to see all the growth that's happened in the past few years.
NNAMDIHere now is Judy in Leesburg, Virginia. Judy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JUDYHello, Kojo. It's nice to talk with your personally. I met you once at a performance in Washington.
NNAMDIWas I performing?
CLINESYears ago. No, but you were hosting.
NNAMDIOkay. Go right ahead with your question.
JUDYWell, I'm sorry I am on Bluetooth. I realized if I turn the engine to my car off -- I am stopped. But if I turn the engine off I will disconnect from you.
NNAMDISure. But go ahead.
JUDYWell, I'm a big fan of independent bookstores. Unfortunately I'm not aware of any here in Leesburg, Virginia, where I live. We do have one bookstore still remaining in Dulles Town Center and we have Barnes and Noble at Tyson's. But the Barnes and Noble in Reston closed. So I think it's wonderful that independent bookstores are opening. And I hope that we have some soon in Leesburg.
NNAMDIWell, I think a lot of your fellow residents in Leesburg probably hope the same thing. And if any of them know of any plans for a bookstore there we'd be happy to hear from you at 800-433-8850. Judy, thank you very much for your call. Eileen, a lot of the draw of independent bookstores is their sense of personality. Where does your store's personality come from?
MCGERVEYI'm going to laugh and say it comes from our staff. You know, when you work at a bookstore you don't get a lot of money, but you do have to really love books. And my staff is extremely creative and they really enjoy talking avidly about the books that they love. And several of them are actors and they like to really act out some of the things that are going on in the book. I was telling these folks earlier we actually have a prop box in our store to bring things to life.
MCGERVEYBut I think it's the passion that booksellers bring to what they love. And that kind of creates the character of what the stores is because it's hard to sell something that you're not passionate about because books are kind of an intimate relationship that people have with their reading. And people can tell whether that's genuine or not. And like I said, I think that what we read and are passion about is what really helps create the character. We have two booksellers, who are called the boozy booksellers and they love to create videos and talk about the books that they love.
NNAMDIIt is an intensely personal relationship indeed. Jenny Clines, Politics and Prose is one of the bigger independent bookstores in this region with three locations, 35 years of history. How do you maintain a sense of each individual neighborhood in your stores as you grow larger?
CLINESOh, that's a great question. So our flagship store has been around for 35 years like you mentioned. And our stores at the Wharf and Union Market have been open for just over a year each. And we really put forth a lot of effort like Paul and Derrick mentioned earlier to get to know those neighborhoods to partner with businesses in the neighborhoods, to have things going on with restaurants and bars in the area, certainly to reach out in the schools. When we open new stores we offer free memberships for the first six months to people, who come in just to get them, you know, into our community and so that we can hear from them and hear what they want and what they expect from us and do our very best to inform our programming and our buying decisions based on that. It's really important to us.
NNAMDIWhen Amazon entered the scene, the mega bookstores could not compete with its prices. And in the last few years Amazon has started opening up its own brick and mortar bookstores in and around the District. How does an independent bookstore compete?
CLINESSo this is a tricky question. And certainly we all know that there are cheaper ways to buy books. And there's this big company that's undercutting small business of all kinds at every turn. I think, though, that what independent bookstores offer is something that Amazon by nature cannot offer, which is the really special people, who work in independent bookstores. So we have these front line booksellers, who are passionate about what they're reading. And they're happy to let you browse, but if you want an opinion, boy do they have opinions.
CLINESWe also have people behind the scenes who are working really hard to innovate and come up with new and exciting content and events and programming to deliver to our customers. Those things are really special. Another thing that certainly we wouldn't be around without is our really supportive community. Whether it's here in D.C. or nationwide and around the world we have people, who have supported us through thick and thin. They rally behind us all the time.
NNAMDII'm going to actually ask this question to each of you, but first you, Derrick Young, what did your online store do that Amazon can't or that Amazon couldn't?
YOUNGWell, we were being very intentional about how we curated our books. Amazon -- the thing is when people are looking for books they don't necessarily know what they're looking for. So when you type in a keyword into a search engine, you just can find anything and it doesn't really mean that it's jumping out to you. But when you have booksellers, who love the content who love the writers and we're being very specific about the books that we're pushing to the front. Even books, who may not necessarily be best-sellers, but are books that from a content perspective are important for readers to at least know that are available.
YOUNGPeople recognize that because it's a type of recommendation that customers begin to trust and that they know when they go to the site or to that store 9 times out of 10 they're going to find the kind of book that they're looking for even though they didn't know what that specific book was. So we were very intentional about that in our marketing and the layout of our website.
NNAMDIAnd speaking of how an independent bookstore competes, Paul Ruppert, what kind of programs did you hold at Upshur St. Books and how is Loyalty Books continuing those efforts?
RUPPERTSo that's one thing that independent bookstores need to do is they need to branch out beyond just books. And we do that at Loyalty through all the programming. We do, once a month on a Sunday afternoon we have Sherry and Agatha Christie who come in and you have a glass of Sherry and you talk about an Agatha Christie mystery. Every weekend we do our literary cocktails. Chantal Sang is one of the leading bartenders here in town and she creates a cocktail menu every weekend that's based on a different book. So a couple of weeks ago when it was the anniversary of Walt Whitman, she did a whole cocktail menu based on Walt Whitman's pieces.
NNAMDIThat is fascinating. I mean, the Agatha Christie thing could go on for like years.
NNAMDIHow did you work with your other businesses in the area to build a community?
RUPPERTSo Loyalty Books has this close connection with Petworth Citizen, which is our next door restaurant. But it also has a connection with the other retailers on Upshur St. So we have other restaurants there and then we have places like Willow and The Florist there. And so there's a lot of interconnection there as I know there is in other neighborhoods with other bookstores.
NNAMDIJim called from Northeastern Illinois to say, the Washington area is the exception for bookstores opening. It's a book desert outside of an occasional Barnes and Noble here outside of Chicago. The Amazon era has ended the bookstores here. Have you been hearing that from different parts of the country, Jenny Clines?
NNAMDIThat this area might be a little different.
CLINESI think that that might be true. I think there are places that certainly don't have the wealth of independent bookstores that we are so fortune to have here. We participate a lot -- all the bookstores represented in this panel do in our regional trade association, and I'll just say that from D.C. to New York including Pennsylvania and Jersey and, you know, all the way, there is a very rich spirit of independent bookselling, lots of stores doing very well. 1
NNAMDIMaybe my friend has to move from Illinois. Melinda tweets, I work at Curious Iguana an indie Frederick, Maryland, which is also a benefit corp. It's a joy to be a part of this organization that's passionate about books and doing good work in the community. Thank you for having this conversation about indies today. Well, thank you for your tweet, Melinda. What do you think of Amazon opening its own brick and mortar stores? Where do you go to feel connected to your community? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back, we're discussing every trick in the book how local bookstores build community. We're talking with Derrick Young. He is co-owner of Mahogany Books. Jenny Clines is director of operations at Politics and Prose. And Paul Ruppert is the former owner of Upshur St. Books now known as Loyalty Books. And Eileen McGervey is the owner of One More Page Books. You had an observation for our tweeter from Illinois?
MCGERVEYWell, I wanted to comment that I know it seems like there's so many bookstores around here and there are. I know that not all communities are financially able to support a bookstore, because not everyone can afford to buy books at full price. And, you know, we do hear from our fellow bookstore owners across the country about the challenges that they face in trying to get the support that they need, because it's also hard. One of the things I think we all count on is brining authors into our stores. And sometimes in a smaller community you can't do that. And it's hard to differentiate yourself, so --
NNAMDIGlad you brought that up, because Guaraf tweets, some international authors are not easily available at local independent bookstores. Is there something that these bookstores can do to get access to these books? These books are often available on Amazon, international authors?
RUPPERTSo there's a real challenge, because they're not as readily available in our distributors. And so it's possible to get those. And we do bring them in to Loyalty and the other bookstores around, but it takes several more steps to get them here.
MCGERVEYYou often have to setup an arrangement with somebody internationally to bring them in in a legal way.
NNAMDIHere now is Hassan in Alexandria, Virginia. Hassan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HASSANHello, Kojo. Thank you so much. How are you?
NNAMDII'm well. I'm well, Hassan.
HASSANKojo, this is -- really was my dream to open a bookstore independent with international books, international newspapers, with cafe inside. My background I came from Italy. I'm Palestinian. I speak four languages and I do love to open this independent bookstore. And I need help from those who have the same idea I have. We would educate the world about the world not only about the United States. And I can leave you my phone number and those who want to help with the same idea, call me.
NNAMDIWe have the number that you're calling from and we can certainly pass that on. But let me ask if there's anyone around the table who has advice for Hassan?
RUPPERTSo when we opened up Upshur St. Books we really depended on other bookstore owners, who had already tried that path. And I know that we'd be happy to talk to you if you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, we'd be happy to chat.
NNAMDIAnd thank you very much and good luck. How do you partner, Eileen, with others in your community to create new events?
MCGERVEYWe work quite a bit with the local library systems, Arlington County Library and Fairfax County Libraries. In fact, gosh, six years ago started a NoVa Teen Book Festival working with the county libraries and also the soul systems and that's grown to over 800 teens and young adults who come to hear YA authors. So there's a lot of going back and forth. It's funny. Some people view libraries as competitors to independent bookstores. I'm not sure that any of us would see it that way, because we're all about getting people to read. And so a lot of times the library has funds to bring in authors and we sell books for them and then if we have authors then oftentimes we bring it to them. And I think it's a great way for both of us to reach out to our various communities, which sometimes overlap, but very often to do not.
NNAMDIHere now is Thomas in Arlington, Virginia. Thomas, it's your turn. You're on the air.
THOMASI got a bunch of books at this bookstore in Sherlington called Busboys and Poets.
THOMASAnd there was a really good book. It was about Martin Luther King. And I also go to Central Library.
NNAMDIHow old are you, Thomas?
THOMASAnd I also go -- I went to Rehoboth Beach and browse about that. And I got this series of books. It's called the Secret Series and they're really good.
NNAMDISo you have a lot of books for summer reading, right?
NNAMDIWell, good for you. It's my understanding that you are nine years old. Is that correct?
THOMASYes. My birthday is in seven days.
NNAMDIOoh, well, congratulations and happy birthday to you and thank you for calling. You don't only hold -- you hold events for children, but you don't only hold events for children. What do you offer the older members of your community?
MCGERVEYSeveral things, we do have several author events every week. And we host several book clubs. We also at our stores sell wine and chocolate. So we host a first Fridays wine tasting and that brings in an older crowd. As well as when we're doing launch parties for different authors. Sometimes we'll have a little wine tasting associated with that. But it's nice, because that gives people an opportunity to talk with each other and to talk with the author before the discussion starts. So it's kind of nice little -- I think you had like your drink and book thing. That's what we do too. It's a different experience.
NNAMDIAll right. Let's go to somebody I think you might now. Here's Katie in Silver Spring, Maryland. Katie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATIEThank you. Hi, Eileen. Hi, Kojo.
KATIEI just wanted to say something about Amazon.
NNAMDIBut how do you know Eileen, Katie?
KATIEShe's my sister-in-law. I'm married to her fabulous brother. And so a couple of years ago Eileen hosted Ann Patchett at an event, which was so large it had to take place in one of the local high school auditoriums. But one of the things -- as you may know Ann Patchett is not only an author but is also an independent bookstore owner. And one of the things that she said that I thought was really important was she encourage everyone in the audience all like 6 or 800 of us to not just go in to local booksellers and other local retailers and use the staff for their knowledge and then go home and purchase it on Amazon. And so I just wanted to remind people that if they really love independent booksellers and other retailers then they actually have to make the purchases there and not just do their research there.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us. Does that happen at Politics and Prose, Jenney Clines? People come in and hear the very opinionated booksellers you have there and then go and buy the book online.
CLINESI'm sure that that does happen, which is unfortunate. And, you know, sometimes you can kind of spot somebody, who just looks like their scouting things out. But overall I think people are very happy to vote with their dollars and purchase from us.
NNAMDIDerrick Young, how do you decide what programs to run in your store?
YOUNGIt's a collaborative effort. Of course, me and my wife, my partner, we're part of that process. But our bookseller is a huge component of the events. And she's younger. She's a recent Howard grad so she kind of helps me to remember some of the younger folk out there that maybe we wouldn't think of when it comes to stuff, but, yeah. It's very collaborative. And we have a lot of people that come in from the Anacostia community who share with us. And, you know, it's a give and take.
YOUNGSo one of the events that we actually started our book club with was the Very Smart Brothers website happened, because the co-owner, co-founder, he actually works out of the area there, the Anacostia Art Center. He's local to Anacostia. So in our just random conversations we came up with the book club idea. And that's been going on for I think almost six to eight months now.
YOUNGSo we have a lot of people that come into the store who are sharing things with us who even are in touch with authors. We've had people that contact authors online over social media. Say, hey, when are you guys coming to Mahogany Books? And we're like, hey, well, I appreciate that. Thank you so much. We'll definitely arrange that event. So it helps us out a lot.
NNAMDIYou don't only do that. You work with schools in your community to serve the people in your neighborhood. Tell us about that work.
YOUNGSo, I mean, that's just -- to me it's just a natural thing. You know, my daughter is 14 and it's a process of making sure that all kids like my daughter have access to these kinds of books. So whether it's Thurgood Marshall Academy or Ketcham down the street, we try to make sure that we're communicating with the principals or the librarians there and finding out in which ways that we can best meet their needs. And we try to personalize it to what they need. We don't give them any like cookie cutter type programs we have. We want to sit down with them and find out how we can best meet the needs of the kids so that the books -- they see the value in the literature.
NNAMDIMahogany Books also has a mission of social entrepreneurship. What does that mean and what does successful social entrepreneurship look like?
YOUNGWell, so investors don't necessarily like the idea, because it doesn't necessarily mean there's a high ROI on it, but for us, you know, a win for us is when whether it's a kid or, you know, an adult comes into the store and for them because we sell books that are written for -- or about people of the African diaspora, that when they come into the store they feel the experience. They feel themselves represented in the images on our walls, the books on the shelves. And then they walk out feeling celebrated, empowered and wanting to do more. So, for us, that's what it's all about. It's for us to use these books, these great talents that these authors have, and to help make sure we get whether it's one, two, or three books into somebody's hand, that inspires them to do more. So, that's what we're really looking about. So, when it comes to working with the libraries or the schools around us, it's just a natural fit. Because we're just about trying to making sure that people are empowered, are improved somehow from -- I mean, all this great knowledge that's around us.
NNAMDIDo people who are non-African-American patronize the store?
YOUNGYes, they do. Yes, they do. And we celebrate it. I mean, we want -- the thing is that African-American history is American history. So, for us, it's about telling, making sure that the entire story is being told about America and all the people that are here that has added to the success of this country. So, yeah, when they come in, you know, again, we go through the same process of trying to find out what are they looking for. We ask specific questions on what area they want to study. Because, I mean, it's a very broad spectrum of ideas and topics that it can get into when you're looking at African-American lit. So, you know, we want to make sure that we're helping them, and getting them to -- whether it's politics or history or memoirs, that we're getting them to the right information.
NNAMDILeslie called in from Middelburg to tell the caller from Leesburg that there's a great independent bookstore, Second Chapter Books, in Middleburg. There's also another in Warrenton, Virginia. So, thank Leslie. Here now is Elispeth in Laurel, Maryland. Elispeth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELISPETHTwo things. One is just the shear, unadulterated pleasure of matching the right person to the right book. There is -- back when I worked -- I had regular customers. And things like this author who came in frantic because his son had been diagnosed with something, and separating the boy and finding out what he really liked and what book he might really like. Yeah, there's nothing like it. The other thing I do is there are traveling bookstores. I do a number of science fiction conventions. There is one locally, Balticon, one down, it's extremely literary, named Capclave. And we have somebody who literally brings her store with her. (unintelligible), a friend of mine and I, channel rare books. You know, they're rare and unusual. We'll get a lot of the specialty presses. I don't mean just small press. I mean specialty. You know, one, which is up -- it's up for Hugo Awards every year.
ELISPETHSo, that's another thing that people are doing.
ELISPETHBut it's also, they sell full price. You will not get a discount.
ELISPETHAnd that's because we, like brick-and-mortar small stores, have done work curating ahead of time for people.
ELISPETHAnd people tend to forget that part. But a lot of work has been done by the booksellers to begin with.
NNAMDIWell, thank you very much for sharing that with us. Joining us now by telephone is Leah Ly. Leah Ly is the manager at Fantom Comics. Leah, thank you for joining us.
LEAH LYHi. Thanks so much for having me.
NNAMDIYour store serves a specific audience, comic book readers. What do you do to bring new people into the world of comic books?
LYWell, I think that pop culture at large is doing a really great job of bringing people into comic books.
LYWe have all these Marvel movies. We're having all of these comic book movies, you know, “Umbrella Academy” on Netflix. It's bringing people into stores because they're interested. I think what we do is we try to broaden people's experience with comic books. It's not just about superheroes. It's about everything. It's about, you know, the human experience in sci-fi or fantasy, really universal experiences. Especially in D.C., which is such a bookish city, I mean, comics isn't a genre. It's a medium. And we try to kind of express that as well as we can through having different genres of comics that are available to people. So, slice-of-life, non-fiction, really anything that everybody can get their hands on, at any age.
NNAMDIDo you collaborate with others in the community for your programs?
LYSo, the collaborators that we usually are working with are often nonprofits or things in the community. As a store, we do a lot of events. And, you know, we'll have your book clubs or your author signings, and things like that. And we're collaborating directly with publishers or with the authors or creators, artists themselves. But sometimes, we're doing other events. So, people kind of see comic book stores as these sort of beacons of kind of the nerd community and pop culture. And we're really happy to, you know, have people think of us when they want to do events that are maybe a little bit outside of the normal what you'd expect from a comic book store, like a dance class or a videogame tournament, or something like that. We've worked with some charities. We're currently working with some nonprofits.
LYEvery once in a while, recently, we had a, what's called, like, a retailer variant exclusive for a comic that is, like, kind of a one shot series of stories about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the cover for it is exclusive to our comic book store and only two other comic book stores in the world. And we did have to collaborate with other businesses on that.
NNAMDIIt sounds cool, though. Here is Jimmy in Washington, D.C. Jimmy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JIMMYHi. I'm Jimmy Williams. I'm the executive director of the Washington Literacy Center. Thank you, Kojo. I wanted to thank the independent bookstores, especially Politics and Prose...
JIMMYMahogany Books. How I could I forget them? Possibly, literally, there's still such a crucial gap. You see, it's a “Tale of Two Cities,” the most literate and the least literate. But their commitment to expanding and having books that everyone can read, Politics and Prose, that's supporting us and nonprofits to gift wrap, and Mahogany Books, that they're out there, outreach. I think they fill a crucial role that the larger bookstore dealers don't. We've purchased materials for our students. They order materials. They do so much in filling a large gap that I think is almost very, very difficult, especially a few years ago, as bookstores started to shrink. So, I just wanted to point that out, and also thank them, as well as all the others that are on the line.
NNAMDIWell, thank you very much for your call, Jimmy. And there are people who feel that Mahogany Books should be doing even more. Here's Caroline in Alexandria, Virginia. Caroline, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CAROLINEHi, Kojo. Hi, Derrick. It's your old colleague, Caroline.
YOUNGOh, hey. How are you?
CAROLINE(laugh) How are you? I'm just calling to say I am so proud of everything that you've accomplished. When I met Derrick probably over 10 years ago now, he was still putting together the vision and building his Mahogany Books website. And he had the dreams of always having a physical store. And it's just so amazing to see all the progress he's made. And we just, we're just so proud of you.
YOUNGThank you, I appreciate it.
CAROLINEBut I do have a question.
NNAMDII know, a challenge.
CAROLINEMy question is: what kind of things do you do to support up-and-coming African-American authors?
YOUNGSo, and that's something that we're really working hard on now. We actually just, I think maybe a week or two weeks ago, finished one of our first master classes for self-publishing creators. Because what we really want to do is to make sure -- the thing is that a lot of authors, they recognize themselves as creatives, as artists. But when you get into the book business, you have to also look at it as an entrepreneur. So, what we want to do is provide some of these authors with the chance to understand the business side of writing a book, selling a book. So, they don't just create all this huge debt that, ultimately, they have to repay, because they haven't sold those books. So, we want to go through the process of helping them become better entrepreneurs and understanding how to sell or market their books.
YOUNGBut then, also, specifically for our readers, we're building up a platform, so that we can help writers who are trying to sell to African-American readers better reach that market. So, we're building out a platform that's leveraging all the social media and lists and 12-plus years of work that we've been doing to make sure that they're getting in front of other readers who are more than likely to purchase their books.
NNAMDIAnd Caroline, thank you very much for your call. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on how local bookstores serve to build community. What are the businesses in your neighborhood that you feel are building community? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about how local bookstores build community. Are you an avid reader? Do you still read paperbacks? Or do you prefer eBooks? Do you support independent bookstores? Are there any in your area? (800) 433-8850. We're talking with Paul Ruppert, former owner Upshur Street Books, now known as Loyalty Books. Jenny Clines is the Director of Operations at Politics and Prose. Eileen McGervey is owner of One More Page Books. Derrick Young is co-owner of Mahogany Books. And Leah Ly is manager at Fantom Comics. Leah, what are some of the challenges of running a comic book store?
LYI think some of the challenges have to do with people's expectations. I think when people think about a comic book store, their minds go to what I think a media representation of a comic book store is, which I guess, like, one of the more famous ones would be, like, on “Big Bang Theory,” or on, like, “The Simpsons.” So, usually kind of like a sort of more ornery guy behind a counter who, you know, wants to judge you for what you do or don't know about superheroes. And it's not like that. Especially for us, we have a really diverse staff. And we're really, really dedicated to making people feel welcome in this space. Because comic book stores are a little bit known for sometimes not being so friendly to groups of people, you know, especially, like, women.
LYAnd, you know, being a woman who is running a store, I never want somebody to feel that way. So, I think it's people's expectations. I know a lot of women who have come into the store ,and they'll tell us horror stories about how they went to a different comic book store in their old town or somewhere else and nobody looked at them, nobody talked to them. Or, you know, they felt really judged for not knowing something or liking something. And we kind of -- we face that sort of challenge. Other than, you know, the regular challenges of running an independent small business, which is you know, just like really hoping that people come out and support us.
NNAMDIWe got the tweet from Everyday Magic 13, who says: independent bookstores are a vital part of communities. They offer connections by person, rather than algorithm. They host book clubs, author events, and serve as de facto community centers. Sellers have read the books on their shelves and have opinions. As you were pointing out earlier, Jenny, sellers have opinions. Thank you for that tweet. Here now is James in Washington, D.C. James, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NNAMDIYep, James you're on the air.
JAMESOkay. How you doing? One of my favorite bookstores in the city is Sankofa Books. And I don't know if everybody is aware of the fact that we just lost a major black bookstore, which was Children of the Sun, on Georgia Avenue.
JAMESAnd what I've come to find out that these stores do is they bind communities. They also are, like, gathering places where people can talk and share ideas and meet. So, I'm a strong supporter of bookstores, especially black bookstores. And I also taught at Anacostia High School. And the owner of Mahogany, is he still there?
NNAMDIVery much so.
YOUNGYes, I am.
JAMESOkay. When I was at Anacostia -- I taught there for 10 years -- one of my students, we did Miles Davis' “Bitches Brew” album cover. And it was on the front cover of the Smithsonian Magazine. I still have it, and if you would like to display it there, I'll leave my number for you.
YOUNGOkay, I appreciate it.
NNAMDIAll right, we'll take your number and pass it on to Derrick Young. So, thank you very much for calling. Here now is Carol in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Carol, your turn.
CAROLThank you for taking my call, Kojo. I appreciate it. First of all, I wanted to mention a book that I've read recently called -- as people like thrillers -- called “The Girl in the Glass Box,” by James Grippando, which is very apropos to what's going on today, because it's about the fate of an undocumented alien from El Salvador, who's sent back with ICE. Very, very good. I recommend that.
CAROLI also wanted to talk about global, global bookstores. I know you're talking about bookstores around the area. But I wanted to talk about global bookstores, because I've traveled to many different countries. I'm very fortunate. And they are -- there's The Strand in New York, of course, and there's Politics and Prose here. And there's Files in London and (word?) in London. And in Paris, there's a place called Shakespeare and Company that I've been to. Wonderful. Those old bookstores, to me, are fascinating, wonderful. And I think that if people travel, they should go to these bookstores and engage.
NNAMDIExcellent idea. Thank...
CAROLI also wanted to tell you that at the Gaithersburg Book Faire, I think it's about a month ago, I listened to a young black author who had spent nine or 10 years in prison. I can't remember the crime. But somehow, he was able to get out of prison. And he wrote a book about his life in prison. And do you know who I'm talking about?
YOUNGI'm not sure. Is it Anthony Ray Hinton?
NNAMDIIs it Anthony Ray Hinton?
NNAMDIOkay, there you go.
CAROLAnd I think he's doing very well with his book.
NNAMDIHe certainly is.
CAROLHe's well-respected. His book is selling. You know, I'm a bookaholic. I want to see books everywhere. I want to see us able to encourage young people to read. Too many of them spend their lives on the cell phones, and they're not reading.
NNAMDIWell, not just young people, these days. (laugh) A lot of us are spending way too much time looking at our devices. But I'm afraid I have to move on. So, thank you very much for your call. Laurie from East City Bookshops emails: thank you for highlighting the growing D.C. bookstore scene. It's exciting to be part of this growth in the last few years. I want to give a shout-out to Eileen for being a trailblazer and opening One More Page eight years ago, when there weren't many stores left in that area. Is that one of the reasons you wanted to do it?
MCGERVEYActually, no. Thank you, Laurie. When I was growing up, I worked as a page on a bookmobile, if anybody knows that that is. I grew up in a community that was relatively new, so the only library we had was at the school, and during the summer, then we didn't have a library. And so the bookmobile would come around every week. And I worked on that. And I had the opportunity 10 years ago to leave my career in marketing to open the bookstore, because I just loved books. And I was telling Jenny earlier that I was fortunate to have Carla and Barbara from Politics and Prose help me with opening my store. And I think that's one of the most incredible things about bookstores, is how we do all rely on each other and lean on each other and learn from each other.
MCGERVEYAnd I just was visiting Laurie store the other day, picking up some more tips from her.
NNAMDIHere now is Bob in Adelphi, Maryland. Bob, your turn.
BOBGood afternoon. I own a small, independent audio book company, Audio Book Contractors. And we specialize in unabridged, classic books. But I still just love walking into a bookstore and spending hours there, browsing. And the best part, I think, is walking out with something you never intended to buy, you just discovered. And it's just a wonderful, wonderful experience. I don't listen to audio books when I'm not working. I read regular books, the tactile holding of them, and going back, if you missed something, you can always turn back and read it. There's just no comparison.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. A guy has got to make a living, though. Right, Bob? (laugh) How does an independent bookstore survive, financially?
CLINESIt's hard. Like we've been talking about having a lot of, offering a lot of services and having a lot of programs and author events in your store. Those are all essential things. We all also, or most of us here, I think, sell gift items in our store, too. One of the challenges with books is that the margin is set before it gets to us. And the margin is slim. So, if you're covering the cost of doing business just with that, that's going to be challenging. So, we, for instance, sell a lot of gift items at all of our stores. And while we want to always be thought of as a bookstore first, with a large inventory of well-curated books, while you're looking at those books, if you happen to pick up an RBG onesie while you're there, that's great. We're going to happily give you that opportunity.
NNAMDIWhat are some of the other challenges, Eileen, that come with running an independent bookstore?
MCGERVEYYou know, as Jenny pointed out, we do have, you know, a fixed margin on our books. But the other expenses that we have tend to go up. And I was just sharing with them earlier that we just got information that our real estate taxes had gone up, significantly. So, there's not a lot of wiggle room for any of us when we have unintended, unexpected expenses like that. And, you know, that's part of, you know, we have a job that we love that's a joy, but then there's the challenging financial side of it, from time to time.
NNAMDIHere is Victoria, in Fairfax, Virginia. Victoria, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VICTORIAThank you for having me on, and thank you for this show. It is just, I love books. And independent bookstores are my greatest love. And each are so different, present differently, and they're just wonderful. I was able to get to Solid State Books, and what I appreciated about that is the time that I went, I went to hear the author. And that really it excites me, to hear the authors talk about their book. At that time it was, I forget the guy's name. But the book was “Mr. Obama, Mr. Trump, my Mother and Me.” And Dave (word?) was promoting him. And thank you, Politics and Prose, for Dorothy Gilliam's book, which I got from you, and was able to go hear her speak. I love those kinds of things. It's just -- and I also want to say that I enjoy a particular independent bookstore that is just used books. And I, my salary...
NNAMDIWe're running out of time, very quickly.
VICTORIAOkay. My salary says sometimes I have to go to a used bookstore. But it's a McKay's Books in Manassas, Virginia. Excellent, it's excellent. Thank you.
NNAMDIWait, this is a quick memory test. Do you remember who interviewed Dorothy Gilliam at Politics and Prose?
VICTORIAIt was at her church. It was at...
NNAMDIOh, I thought you said it was Politics and Prose. 'Cause I interviewed her at Politics and Prose. (laugh)
VICTORIAI'm sorry. I got her book from Politics and Prose.
NNAMDIFair enough, thank you very much for your call. I didn't want me to be left out of the limelight. And we got an e-mail from Ben, who says, in response to the earlier call in Leesburg, I wanted to make a correction. There is an independent bookshop in Leesburg called Books and Other Things. It's a neat local place for this area. And Annie tweets: I was so excited to have Loyalty Books pop up in downtown Silver Spring over Christmastime. Any plans for an independent bookstore in downtown Silver Spring? We need one. Does anyone know of any plans for an independent bookstore?
RUPPERTWell, Loyalty is actually planning to pop up there again this holiday season. And they're working on finding a permanent location.
NNAMDICool. And Donna e-mails: I live in Bethesda and was devastated when Barnes & Nobel closed and Amazon came in down the street. I refuse to buy from Amazon, and it gave me reason to search elsewhere. I feel so thankful and so lucky to have private bookstores to explore in my area. And, finally, Sue tweets, so glad to hear your show on independent bookstores. I'd like to remind the book sellers that romance books outsell all other genres. There's a huge market and fantastic authors of color doing interesting, innovative work. Please have good, diverse romantic sections. Well, you have been heard. And I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Paul Ruppert, thank you for joining us.
RUPPERTThanks so much, Kojo.
NNAMDIPaul Ruppert is former owner of Upshur Street Books, now Loyalty Books. Jenny Clines, thank you for joining us.
CLINESThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIJenny Clines is Director of Operations at Politics and Prose. Eileen McGervey, thank you.
MCGERVEYThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIEileen is owner of One More Page Books. Derrick Young, pleasure.
NNAMDIDerrick Young is co-owner of Mahogany Books. And Leah Ly is Manager at Fantom Comics. Leah, thank you for joining us.
LYThank you so much, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd that's it for today's show. This show about local bookstores was produced by Kayla Hewitt. Coming up tomorrow, as the President's threat of mass deportations looms, we explore what it means for local residents and local governments and police departments. Plus, you'll hear about efforts to diversify the cybersecurity field in our region. It all starts tomorrow, at noon. I hope you'll tune in then. Until that time, thank you listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
For the fifth year in a row, the U.S. welcomed over a million international students. Could the pandemic drastically reduce that number?
Learn how to adopt a pet, and some tips and tricks to help you train your new puppy.
Local filmmaker Merawi Gerima tells the story of gentrification and identity.