The following is the latest report from Anna Thorn, the veteran bookseller who, as Bookstore Vagabond, is currently touring indie bookstores across the country, interviewing owners, buyers, booksellers and customers about their experiences and successes. Read more about Bookstore Vagabond and indie bookstores in all their variety here.
|Hannah Oliver Depp
The bookstore scene in Washington, D.C., has gone through a renaissance over the past five years. This has included the arrival of East City Bookshop, Mahogany Books, Solid State Books, Lost City Books, (new owners for) Capitol Hill Books and our newest addition, Loyalty Bookstores in Petworth in the District and Silver Spring, Md. I sat down with the owner of Loyalty, Hannah Oliver Depp, at Petworth Citizen, next door to Loyalty One in Petworth. Over a glass of wine, we talked about starting two bookstores in one year, how to create safe spaces, romance novels and, of course, Loyalty.
Both the Petworth and Silver Spring locations are cozy neighborhood stores. They're made cozier with vintage furniture, tablecloths, lamps and plenty of shelf talkers. They have display tables piled high with timely titles--indie fiction, cultural and feminist studies, progressive political books. It's a selection tailor-made for the engaged, thoughtful citizen. The Petworth store, which opened two years ago this month, recently moved in with Willow, a gift shop down the street. The stores share a similar aesthetic and carefully curated vibe, and both owners are pleased with the pairing so far. The larger Silver Spring location, which opened in October 2019, has just undergone a minor makeover to enlarge its kids' section and to make room for more titles.
Indie bookstores are always personal, but to me Hannah seems especially present in her stores, perhaps because we've known each other since our first days in bookselling. I watched her become a career bookseller at Politics and Prose and then at WORD Bookstores in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Jersey City, N.J. I saw her dedicate herself to the industry--and once Hannah dedicates herself to something, she is all in. Hence Loyalty.
The name of the store has a host of meanings for Hannah. In the first place, she says, it's simply "a lovely word that rolls off your tongue" and a "pretty word aesthetically." It's a declaration of loyalty to the written word, "to an ideal that is not fiscally the smartest thing." It's an homage to C.S. Lewis, one of her formative authors. "Also, my favorite song is "Loyalty" by Kendrick Lamar. So if you combine that and C.S. Lewis, I feel like that's a pretty good summary of who I am," she says with a laugh.
But Hannah expresses Loyalty's primary significance in one sentence: "It is my single guiding principle forever and always."
It is the guiding principle of the stores as well. They're spaces that exist to be loyal to the communities they serve. The bookstores' communities are, naturally, their neighborhoods, but also less tangible communities, such as diverse and marginalized groups, the romance community (which she calls one of "the most welcoming, supportive and responsive"), and the amazing booksellers who work in the stores. When I ask her about her favorite part of her job, she tells me that it's creating a safe space. "We mess up a lot, every day," she reflects, "but if the net is that someone feels safe to work for me, then I did my job."
Hannah wants to spread this ethos. From the beginning, she has conceived of Loyalty Bookstores in terms of many of individual creations, each tailored to its location. "I love the idea of going from town to town and partnering with people from each town and making something special." Since she first started planning and plotting the stores, she's "had the fantasy of being the type of owner who would build something and then turn it over to somebody else." She's off to a running start with these first two creations, which she seems to have forged through sheer force of will (and a superhuman amount of work).
We finished the last of our wine and wrapped up our conversation around 10 p.m. In classic bookstore-owner fashion, Hannah stretched and told me, "Well, now I have to go place a bunch of orders." That's dedication.