As you pull open the double doors of northwest Washington, DC’s Politics and Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse, the familiar smell of paper immediately floods your senses and invites you in.
Situated on Connecticut Avenue and Fessenden Street NW, two stories of books, and an under-construction café on the lower level, welcomes Washingtonians with curiosity and excitement. Look up, and colorful cardboard signs dangle from the ceiling above detailing countless genres of books within reach, ready to take readers on whatever literary adventure they desire.
Turn to the left, and see books of fiction, new fiction, non-fiction, biographies, politics and more adorning bookcases and tables around the room. Continue left, and an entire room dedicated just to the imagination, named Fiction Room, unfolds around you.
Walk across the store to the sounds of drawers springing open and scanners ringing purchases for customers at almost every cash register, despite the early morning hour. To their left, small racks of CDs and records lead to even more books. A man and woman are sitting at a table in the back of the store, discussing politics - a common occurrence here. A child walks by them, leading his mother eagerly by the hand downstairs to the children's section to find a book about sharks.
Five years ago, analysts would have predicted bookstores like this one would have been shut down by now. Why’s that? E-readers.
E-readers, the anticipated achilles heel of print. Far and wide, analysts were screaming the demise of print was within reach thanks to these devices.
Then, in 2015, digital sales slowed sharply, and the earliest e-reader adopters were now returning to print. Amazon, the leader of e-book sales thanks to its Kindle e-reader and online store, opened its first brick-and-mortar bookstore in Seattle, Washington, in November 2015.
According to Entrepreneur, Amazon is leveraging its online data to create offline sales by stocking its physical stores based on online consumer reviews.
“It’s data with heart,” Jennifer Cast, vice president of Amazon Books, told Forbes. “We’re taking the data we have and we’re creating physical places with it.”
The American Booksellers Association counted 1,712 member stores in 2,227 locations last year, up from 1,410 in 1,660 locations just five years ago despite the competition from e-book sellers like Amazon.
In DC, community-based bookstores are rising as well. Politics and Prose, leading the charge, now has three satellite stores stationed in Busboys and Poets restaurants around the city. In the past year, two new brick-and-mortar independent bookstores, Upshur Street Books and Walls of Books, opened their doors.
Donna Wells, a former Barnes & Nobles employee, has worked at Politics and Prose for the past year as a children’s bookseller. The difference between here and the big stores she simply says is, “customers like having someone to talk to.”
Shown evidently throughout the bookstore on this cloudy Wednesday, employees can be seen welcoming customers as soon as they walk into the room.
An employee in the fiction wing is helping a man publish his own book on Opus, the store’s own book making machine. Another is showing a woman the latest Stephen King novel, and talking to her about the upcoming Hulu series starring James Franco based on his fictional book on the Kennedy assassination, 11/22/63. The event calendar by the register shows nightly author talks at the store. Tomorrow is David Greenberg discussing the history of the American Presidency. Can’t make it? Their website shares mp3s from these events.
“Excuse me, do you know the difference between comic and graphic novels for kids?” a father asks of Wells while she stands at the help desk in the children's section. She excitedly leads him away to the graphic novel section, explaining how graphic novels are more complex and told in one or two books, while a comic tells a story over many issues. They pick out an issue of Minecraft: Creaturetopia together for his son.
Is the e-book apocalypse just running late? Or have customers found the value in their community-based bookstores? Time will tell.
For now, the centuries long tradition of words on paper will live to see another day, at least at Politics and Prose.
By Robin Dienel, 27 January 2016