WAMU: Amazon Was Supposed To Have Crushed Bookstores. So Why Are Indie Bookshops Booming In D.C.?

Amazon Was Supposed To Have Crushed Bookstores. So Why Are Indie Bookshops Booming In D.C.?

Ally Schweitzer

There’s no question about it: Amazon has walloped brick-and-mortar bookstores across the country. But in the Washington region, mom-and-pop booksellers say they’re not going anywhere.

At least five small, independent bookstores have opened locally in the last two years, with more on the way. Solid State Books is a new shop heading to H Street NE. Big indie players Politics and Prose, Kramerbooks and Busboys and Poets have either expanded or are planning expansions, and innovative ventures such as mobile shop Duende District are remaking what it means to be a bookstore.

Is this surge of energy a fluke, or does it mark a new chapter for independent bookstores? Local booksellers are leaning toward the latter, but they say challenges still lie ahead.

Here’s a look at what indie bookstores have going for them and what hurdles they continue to face.

Why independent bookstores are succeeding

  1. Big-box chain bookstores and ebooks have retreated: It wasn’t long ago that chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble posed an existential threat to independent bookshops. These days, those former Goliaths have all but evaporated from strip malls across the Washington region. Borders declared bankruptcy in 2011, and Barnes & Noble has gradually closed one store after another, with its Bethesda location due to close at the end of 2017. The slow extinction of big-box bookstores has presented a golden opportunity for the little guys.”That just opened up the landscape for independent bookstores,” says Laurie Gillman, owner of East City Bookshop in Capitol Hill. “People realized, ‘Oh, wait! I need a place to go and look at the books. And touch the books. And talk to people about the books.’ So that really opened up the market.”Meanwhile, ebook sales have plateaued, dampening fears that book lovers would flock to e-readers and leave the printed page behind.

    “When we got in the business, back in 2011, there were all these dire predictions that ebooks were going to eliminate physical books within five or 10 years. Nobody’s predicting that anymore,” says Politics and Prose co-owner Bradley Graham. “In fact, some of the most avid users of e-readers remain among the most avid buyers of physicals.”

  2. Bookstores are trying out new ideas: From book delivery to pop-up bookstores, indie bookselling is getting more agile. Take Duende District, a bookstore with no fixed address. Founder Angela Maria Spring has brought her mobile shop to Artomatic and the Columbia Heights Day festival, and later this month she plans to set up shop at La Mano Coffee Bar in Takoma. Spring specializes in books by authors of color, who often go overlooked in an industry dominated by white authors, critics, booksellers and publishers.”I really wanted to create a store where [people of color] could shine,” Spring says.Spring hopes to eventually transition to a brick-and-mortar store (or two), but for now, she’s using her time on the road to feel out what kinds of books local people want, and what they’re not getting from other stores.
Angela Maria Spring