At a time when many bookstores are closing, Upshur Street Books has just finished its first chapter, and the plot is thickening.
Six months since its opening, the store isn’t quite breaking even. But owner Paul Ruppert is optimistic that the store will soon reach that goal. Expect Upshur to be around for a long time, Ruppert says.
Now that the store has developed a personality, it’s getting more ambitious—-increasing the diversity of what’s on its shelves and expanding its programming. Upshur has none of the mustiness and disorganization of some bookstores; it’s all clean lines and bright blocks of color. The 700-square-foot space suggests that every book on the wooden shelves has truly earned its spot, that choosing one at random wouldn’t disappoint.
“I can know every book in the store and I can know every regular,” says manager Anna Thorn, who came to Upshur from Politics & Prose. As an invested resident of Petworth, where Upshur Street Books stands, she was tempted by the opportunity to craft a bookstore’s beginning.
Thorn and Ruppert saw a dearth of bookstores in the city and an appetite for more space where people could meet and exchange ideas. “People are smart in this city, and they also want people to think they’re smart,” Thorn says. But not enough people were capitalizing on that.
Ruppert went for it. The bookstore is his first retail venture, though he already owns two restaurants on Upshur Street (Petworth Citizen and Crane & Turtle) in addition to Room 11, and he’s opening a new spot on Georgia Avenue, Slim’s Diner, in July.
Why books instead of something more cutting edge? Because bookstores are an essential ingredient of vibrant cities, which is what Ruppert wants D.C. to be. The arts are one of his lifelong passions, and he knew that aspiring writers eager to promote their work—-and bring business to the store in the process—-would never be in short supply.
“We want to create a place for people to come and meet, and we want to give them something to talk about,” Ruppert says.
D.C. poet E. Ethelbert Miller is one of those writers developing a symbiotic relationship with the store. “A bookstore is just as important as a synagogue, mosque, or church,” Miller says. He notes that shopping online for books doesn’t allow for serendipitous discoveries the way browsing in bookstores does, nor does it allow for two strangers to strike up conversations. Miller likes Upshur because its small size evokes the same sense of intimacy a reader gets by sitting down with a book.
While business was solid at Upshur through the holiday season, sales dipped in January and February. But they’re starting to pick back up.
The kinds of books a bookstore sells tells a story about its community. Sell a lot of cardboard books with furry protagonists, and you know the neighborhood is crawling with tykes. Fail to sell a lot of biographies of dead, white men? You just might be in Petworth.
Neighborhood readers have been insistent that Petworth’s diversity be reflected on the shelves of the store, Thorn says, and she’s been pleased to find that her customers have good taste. The trashy books she stocked up on for the store’s opening languished; she ended up returning them. Children’s books, graphic novels, books about D.C. and by D.C. authors, and surprisingly, literary criticism, all do very well, she says. Ruppert, for his part, is currently reading All Aunt Hagar’s Children, a book by D.C. native Edward P. Jones that tells the stories of ordinary people struggling to make a life in the District.
Thorn plans to expand the store’s small press offerings, since they often print translations of foreign authors and discover off-the-beaten-path gems. She also intends to complement the six D.C.-based periodicals the store carries with 20 more magazines. Upshur Street Books will also begin to sell more sidelines—-toys, cards, and other gift items—-and beef up its website with bios of the booksellers and intel on their literary tastes.
For now, parents can bring their kids to twice weekly kids sing-a-longs, and for the neighborhood intellectuals, there are headier discussions on topics like “The Literary Genius of Lil Wayne.” The events space above the forthcoming diner will enable the store to organize larger readings, and Thorn also hopes to organize offsite events with other D.C. cultural organizations. The store has already been flooded with demands for pop-ups at festivals, conferences, and private parties.
Next Saturday, May 2, Upshur Street Books will mark down the prices of everything in the store for Independent Bookstore Day. And on May 9, it’ll host a charity drive to coincide with the Petworth farmers market’s hours. Thorn and other Petworth business leaders are asking people to bring food, clothes, books, and other items for donation to the District Alliance for Safe Housing, Thrive DC, and Better World Books. In exchange, shoppers will receive a book of coupons for deals at several businesses in Petworth.
Photo courtesy of Upshur Street Books