Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Shop Independent Book Stores: Small Business Saturday

By Vanessa Mallory Kotz

When you’re checking off your holiday gift list this year, forget Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and think about going to  an indie bookstore in your neighborhood. 

If you haven’t ventured into the Petworth neighborhood in northwest D.C., you’re missing out. This thriving, diverse community is made up of young families just moving in, working-class folks who’ve been there for decades and millennials looking for a fun, less expensive, place to live in the city. New businesses and restaurants are popping up all over, as well as luxury condo buildings. For now (and hopefully forever), the neighborhood retains its own flavor—most of the new hotspots are independent, including Upshur Street Books, which opened just a year ago.

The 800-square-foot store is the latest venture from Paul Ruppert. The native Washingtonian has two successful restaurants on the same street, Crane & Turtle and Petworth Citizen. The latter includes a lending library and reading room in the back, where books for both children and adults line the walls and writers meet—like the Drink. Write. Read gatherings led by local author and Writer’s Center Instructor Willona Sloane. The success of Petworth Citizen may be, in part, why Ruppert became interested in starting a bookstore. “I’ve never worked in a bookstore,” he said in an interview for The Washington Post, “but I’ve always loved them. I’ve always thought of them as the focus of the cultural life in Washington and other cities.”

The store was funded with his own cash plus a Great Streets Small Business Capital Improvement grant for $80,000 and $20,000 he raised on Kickstarter by promising “the first new independent bookstore to open in Washington, D.C., in 10 years.”

Anna Thorn, general manager of Upshur Street Books, was formerly the programs manager at Politics and Prose, where she worked for four years. At P&P, she learned the nuts and bolts of the book industry. When she heard that an independent bookstore was opening up in Petworth, three blocks from her home, she was thrilled. A passionate advocate for the neighborhood’s diversity and “porch culture,” Thorn jumped at the chance to manage the new bookstore. “This was the ultimate way to create a community space,” she said.

Readings and book signings by authors of every genre are on the menu of programmatic offerings at Upshur Street, but Thorn knew that for the bookstore to thrive it had to be an integral part of community life. Author dinners, beer tastings, children’s sing-a-longs, arts and crafts sessions in Spanish, critical conversations about current events and talks about art can all be experienced in the cozy, grass-green painted space accented by warm wooden floors and shelves.

Upshur Street Books is reaching out to the writers’ community as well. Earlier this year, the store and The Writer’s Center formed a partnership—giving members of the Center a 10% discount on all purchases. They also work with 826DC, an organization that primarily offers writing workshops for children, (826dc.org). These collaborations anchor the bookstore by garnering additional support and participation from D.C.’s literary residents.

“The community shapes the stock,” Thorn said. She pays close attention to what sells and what doesn’t, making adjustments particular to her buyers. The store carries about 3,300 titles in subjects varying from young adult novels to art books, cookbooks to graphic novels, history to fiction, regional titles to poetry, handmade prints, cards, and moleskin notebooks. At the back of the store, a large children’s book section displays colorful covers and offers wooden blocks for play. Folk music gently strums in the background. Coffee and pastries from a nearby bakery are available. Friendly, funny handwritten tags point out the merits of particular titles, one warning “N.S.F.W. … but very entertaining.” 

For a list of events and happenings at Upshur Street Books, visit their Facebook page.

*Find an indie bookstore in D.C. Virginia, and Maryland.

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