East City Bookshop sets up an information table at the East of the River Book Festival. Image by Dr. Courtney Davis used with permission.

Wards 7 and 8 are rich with cultural institutions, from THEARC to Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum to the Gateway Pavilion at Saint Elizabeths East Campus. Yet there is not a single independent bookstore east of the Anacostia River. Can this change? Will it?

Earlier this month, I wrote about how Wards 7 and 8 are book deserts. A book desert is not just a region devoid of buildings holding print matter for sale. It’s an area where book culture must largely exist underground, out of the public view. There are writers, authors, journalists, readers, students and educators in every community, and bookstores bring these groups together, hosting space to gather, discuss, and learn. That, in turn, cultivates more intellectually curious folks.

There is no shortage of talented artists and community-based institutions east of the Anacostia, but without a singular cultural gathering point for men, women, children and teen to discuss books, browse books and buy books the cultural growth of the community is stifled.

Bookstores might be experiencing a rebirth in DC

Based on discussions and research, the last independent full-service bookstore east of the river was Pyramid Books at 1421 Good Hope Road SE. Run in collaboration with members of the Nation of Islam, the store operated as a community center. The store closed in the mid 1990s, and for the past several years the property has been vacant except during tax season, when a makeshift pops up until April 15.

The former space of Pyramid Books at 1421 Good Hope Road SE.  Image by the author.

Since the closing of Pyramid Books, numerous independent bookstores and national chains have closed throughout the District. But in recent years the opening of Upshur Street Books in Petworth and Wall of Books in Park View along with East City Bookshop on Pennsylvania Avenue SE near Eastern Market, have signaled a small rebirth. And according to a source within the local book industry, there could be two or three more independent bookstores opening within the city in the next year… west of the Anacostia.

Pyramid Books in the 1990 - 1991 Washington City Phone Book. Image by Library of Congress.

But can that extend east of the Anacostia?

Can this momentum cross the river? Development renderings presented at community meetings east of the river have, on occasion, inserted a bookstore. What would it take for a bookstore to appear?

Opening a bookstore is more than just a combined labor of love for books and entrepreneurial spirit. You must have financing, location, design and book purchasing ability. Jim Toole, the sardonic proprietor of Capitol Hill Books, who is nearing 80 years old, says he spends nearly that many hours a week scouting used bookstores in the Baltimore-DC metropolitan area for under-priced books which he then marks up and sells in his store. Jim’s eye for acquisition and knowledge of what will sell has been fine tuned for more than two decades.

One way DC’s government could irrigate bookstore growth east of the Anacostia might be through a cultural grant program administered by city agencies like the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities, Office of Planning, Department of Small and Local Business Development, Department of Housing and Community Development, or the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.

An initiative like this could help a qualified or upstart bookseller acquire a vacant property, gain access to working capital, build out a location and, once open, receive tax breaks until the business is established.

But along with the financials, a successful bookstore must earn local goodwill.

A case study: Upshur Street Books

“To be successful, a neighborhood bookstore has to develop a community of supporters. I recommend reaching out to neighbors and ask for ideas, feedback and support,” says Paul Ruppert, owner of Upshur Street Books. “Talk to as many people as possible so that you have a good idea of what residents want to see in a bookstore.

Like many independent retailers, Upshur Street Books has focused on the needs and desires of their neighborhood, Ruppert says. “We welcome customers from all over the city, but our core support comes from people who live within a mile of the store. We stock books that our customers ask for.”

Based on an informal survey using social media Ward 8 readers revealed they would like to see books covering social justice issues, east of the river history, works by local authors, self-help law andpersonal finance instruction, young adult fiction, spirituality, anime, comics, biographies and science fiction.

In the age of Amazon Prime, Ruppert admits, “customers of brick-and-mortar bookstores choose a less-convenient method of getting their books. It is far easier to order books from your computer and wait for them to arrive two days later.”

Recently celebrating its two year anniversary, and breaking even, Upshur Street Books is part of Ruppert’s belief that “every neighborhood deserves a bookstore. People are hungry for culture and interaction all over the city. A bookstore east of the river has the opportunity to be a catalyst for the community.”

Before opening Upshur Street Books, an online fundraiser netted nearly $20,000. Crowdfunding efforts have helped jumpstart new stores and subsidize existing booksellers; last year publisher HarperCollins announced its own initiative to support new bookstores, and consultant groups have formed to assist independent booksellers gain industry expertise and to then flourish.

Thoughts from local writers

Writers, reporters, and authors live and work east of the river but no collective of writers, nor a singular writer, has emerged to define this area of the District. A bookstore brings artisans and non-artisans together in a space where the exchange of ideas is valued and encouraged.

During the early 1990s an all-purpose cultural and arts center in the 1900 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE served as venue for open mic poetry readings, local theatre productions, arthouse and documentary films and hosted a small-scale bookstore. The center was funded by Duane Guatieri's ARCH Corporation, who run the Anacostia Arts Center today.

Michigan State University law professor and award-winning poet Brian Gilmore recalls, “8 Rock Performing Arts and Cultural Center was on MLK for two years. 1993-94 or so. They used to have Poetry. Jazz. Hip-hop. Film. Books. Great brief moment of culture in the city.”

A poetic voice known throughout the city and country, Ethelbert Miller, shared his thoughts about the reality and challenges a bookstore east of the river will face.

“Bookstores need a supportive community. I was in Anacostia a few weeks ago and found the neighborhood library filled with people. A good sign. If we look at income inequality how do we expect poor people to buy books when they can borrow them?”

Miller continued, “I link bookstores to people and families that have home libraries. Many young people are sadly becoming non readers. It would be risky business to place a bookstore in an area where there is not a strong middle class. At the same time if we reinvent the bookstore we can create new spaces that provide the community with new sacred places. A good bookstore is always a place of destination.”

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a recent Yale Law School graduate and memoirist who used to work at Karibu Books, an independent Afrocentric bookstore with locations in Maryland and Virginia. He also taught youth writing classes in Ward 8. When asked why there are no bookstores east of the river, he could not pinpoint an answer:

I'm not sure why there are no bookstores in Ward 7 and 8. An obvious answer is the profit margins are so low few people who have the capital or ability to generate the capital are willing to invest in it. Running a bookstore isn't about getting rich. A bookstore is vital to a vibrant community, but the investment by the owners multiples more in intangibles than in the bottom line, especially in an era of Amazon. Still, if we admit that a bookstore is a kind of shelter, a place where people can be introduced to new ideas and children can be exposed to books, and folks can just get that ten to fifteen minutes of good conversation — the lack of one becomes more troubling. And this is Wards 7 and 8 and Prince George's County.

Children’s author Dr. Courtney Davis says a bookstore opening in her community “will validate the fact that readers and writers exist in my neighborhood.” Davis continues, “It will act as a hub for readers, writers and all storytellers to commune, converse and learn to be better at their craft. It will also be beneficial to create a safe place where reading and exploration of texts are cool things to do.”

The Charnice Milton Community Bookstore

In recent weeks, as discussions around the lack of an independent bookstore east of the river have percolated, Kymone Freeman of WeAct Radio has taken matters into his own hands. In recent weeks, as an outgrowth of “Bookapoloza,” a canvassing program by Democracy Prep to collect books to start home libraries for children in Ward 8, Freeman has accepted donations of used books Wednesdays from 5pm - 8pm at 1918 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.

Kymone Freeman plans to start the first bookstore east of the river in the basement of WeAct Radio.  Image by WeAct Radio used with permission.

Earlier this week Freeman met with a group of business leaders and the father of Charnice A. Milton, a community reporter who was killed waiting for her bus after attending a civic meeting in May 2015, to discuss the opening of a community bookstore or book exchange in her honor.

Initial plans are to hold a kick-off event celebrating and memorializing Milton’s life and local reporting Saturday, May 27, 2017. This will begin a two-month online fundraising effort which will go towards the costs of repairing and retrofitting the basement of WeAct Radio, currently used for storage.

“Every neighborhood deserves a bookstore,” Freeman proclaims, whose mantra is “DO SOMETHING!” If all goes according to plan, by the end of the year The Charnice Milton Community Bookstore will open. Book donations will continue throughout the year.

Where they are many challenges, there are many opportunities. Will we see a bookstore open east of the Anacostia before the close of the year or in the near future? Will the bookstore drought east of the river ease in the coming years? I do hope.