When Vertigo Books moved from Dupont Circle to College Park five years ago, its staff assumed that demand for academic books would stay stable or maybe even grow. They were wrong, says owner Todd Stewart, 47. “We actually sold more academic books downtown than we do out here, even though we are a block from the University of Maryland,” he says. “We went from a wall unit of cultural studies to two shelves.”
It’s not that Maryland students and staff aren’t reading—they’re probably buying books from the campus Barnes and Noble or Amazon.com, Stewart says. But despite university denizens’ indifference to the independently owned bookstore, Vertigo is doing well in its new location, its owners report. In fact, Vertigo will celebrate its 15th anniversary this Saturday with a reading by poet Sonia Sanchez.
“Fifteen years is a great accomplishment for an independent business of any kind in this day and age,” says store employee Melanie Craig, 45.
Vertigo does have the advantage of one of the best locations in College Park. It’s situated in the same strip mall as a Wawa, a Starbucks, and a Chipotle—all hot undergraduate destinations—and it’s an easy walk from a massive block of student housing. But students seem to have blinders on as they pass Vertigo’s half-off book carts, making beelines for the burritos.
One Maryland sophomore, Henry Shohedbrod, 19, walks past Vertigo almost every day, and has never noticed it was there. “I get my books at the University Book Exchange,” he says. “One time I got a book at the [student] union.”
The owners of Vertigo can’t do much to draw students. They have to turn down invitations to sell books at campus events, because Barnes and Noble has an exclusive contract with the school. The bookstore attempted to lure students off-campus in 2002, by co-sponsoring an event with the Maryland geology department. An author who had survived a volcano eruption visited the store to talk about her experience and sign books. “Hardly anyone from the geology department came,” says Stewart. “It was mostly just our regular customers.”
College Park residents have filled the gap left by students, Stewart says. Every Saturday, parents rush the store, buying last-minute presents while en route to birthday parties. In fact, children’s book sales have tripled since Vertigo relocated from Dupont—a move spurred by rent increases—and the children’s section now occupies about a quarter of the store.
Katie Huggins, a mother of four, is a frequent—and typical—Vertigo customer, who drove out of her way to buy a new bedtime book there.
“You can swing a dead cat and hit a thousand Borders,” she says. “You don’t find anything like this very often.”
Also among the bookstore’s customers are graduate students who scour shelves for discount trade paperbacks and a handful of die-hard bookworms, the kind of students who read Joyce on the beach, Stewart says. The average student seems less familiar with the concept of independently owned bookstores. One young couple, perhaps used to shopping online, recently complained that the store “smelled like books,” says Stewart. More often, undergraduates are surprised to find the store has no bestsellers section.
“We specialize in the books nobody wants,” Stewart explains to them. “[We want] to have stuff available that you can’t find everywhere.” —Sadie Dingfelder