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Capitol Hill Books : An Interview with Kyle Burk (Co-Owner of the Bookshop)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person of a certain book love must be in want of more books. There are the nice bookstores — the fancy ones, the ones that have Starbucks coffee shops inside, plush chairs, and shiny new books. And then there are the used bookstores, the ones that exude personality and attract book hoarders and lovers alike. Among this second type is Capitol Hill Books.
About the Bookshop
Capitol Hill Books is a used bookstore located on historic Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. with two floors of used books, first editions, and rare books. The store is stuffed with books on everything imaginable, and is a member of the Washington Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association.
The store was founded by Bill Kerr who had worked at an earlier Capitol Hill bookstore, Wayward Books. He would take his pay in books and when Wayward closed up and moved to Maine, Bill opened Capitol Hill Books in 1991. He lived upstairs and worked downstairs in the store, while also holding down a job at The Washington Post. He died at age 58 from a heart attack in November 1994 and his sister sold the bookstore to, Jim Toole in February 1995.
Bill Kerr was a beloved figure on Capitol Hill, not only for his knowledge of books but also for his efforts through AA as he focused many people onto the road to reason and productive living. The present store has expanded into the second floor and to the basement, and has incorporated Bill Kerr’s high standards for quality used books.
The Business of Books is the business of life
Working at a bookstore is so much more than stocking books and ringing up transactions; it is about making personal connections, talking to people about what’s going on in their lives, having passionate conversations about books and issues, and forging genuine connections. It’s almost a complete 180 from the online environment. Although every independent bookstore has its own unique personality, they are all warm and welcoming thanks to the people who work there.
There’s a connection that’s made when you come in a bookstore and have conversations with booksellers, authors, and fellow readers. Bookstores are safe places to explore new ideas, discuss difficult topics and issues, or and an escape from the world around us. They allow you to become part of and support your community — shopping at independent bookstores helps keeps tax dollars in your community, create jobs, help the environment, invest in entrepreneurship and small business, and so much more!
Online algorithms might recommend additional books to purchase, but they aren’t a substitute for the conversations that lead to personal recommendations from booksellers you know and trust.
So in an effort to learn more and understand how we, as writers or readers, can aid their work which can not only improves the dynamics of the bookselling business and but also helps the literary community flourish further.
I had a conversation with Kyle Burk who is the Co- Owner of the bookshop about Bookselling Business Environment and how Capitol Hills is weathering the COVID-19 crisis and keeping themselves relevant in these uncertain and testing times.
Excerpts from the Interview : -
Q1) Hi Kyle, thank you for doing this interview or Q&A session with me. I am really thrilled and honored to have you here for this collaboration. Can you tell us about the history of the Capitol Hill Books and your role in it?
Kyle : Bill Kerr founded Capitol Hill Books back in 1991. We are located in a brick row house in the Eastern Market neighborhood of Capitol Hill. When Mr. Kerr passed away in 1994, Jim Toole bought the bookstore. I began working here part time in 2005, along with Aaron Beckwith and Matt Wixon. When Jim decided he wanted to sell the store in 2018, Aaron, Matt, our friend Shantanu, and I purchased the place from him. Aaron manages all store operations, I play a supporting role, Shantanu handles our finances and makes spreadsheets, Matt passed away in 2019, which is still devastating to have to say.
LONG-TIME EMPLOYEES AND FRIENDS OF CAPITOL HILL BOOKS PURCHASE STORE FROM OWNER JIM TOOLE
Long-time employees and friends of Capitol Hill Books have purchased the store from owner Morton “Jim” Toole, who had…medium.com
Q2) According to American Booksellers Association — “INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES ACT AS COMMUNITY ANCHORS; THEY SERVE A UNIQUE ROLE IN PROMOTING THE OPEN EXCHANGE OF IDEAS, ENRICHING THE CULTURAL LIFE OF COMMUNITIES, AND CREATING ECONOMICALLY VIBRANT NEIGHBORHOODS.”
How Capitol Hill Books has cultivated this atmosphere?
Kyle : Independent bookstores should be centers of local culture and places where the community can share and indulge their love of books. We try to be that place.
People who come to our store can find unique and classic used books and the best new books of all kinds — whether that’s a rare edition of an old Camus novel, a book on D.C. history, or the latest by Colson Whitehead. When people visit our store, they know there is a chance they might find something they just won’t find anywhere else. Going to an indie bookstore shouldn’t be like going to a McDonalds — where you know you’ll get the same thing whether you’re in Topeka or in Miami. It should be a particular and distinct experience imbedded with local nuance. As the commercial landscape in this country becomes more and more self-same, people crave that nuance. In short, we try to stay weird.
Q3) What do you love most about being a bookseller? What’s your bookselling philosophy?
Kyle : I mostly just love being around books. On the “give them what they want” versus “give them what they need” spectrum, we’re probably more on the latter side. To me, the most magical thing is helping someone find a book they didn’t even know they needed that winds up becoming a book they love.
Q4) Tell us about your weekly newsletters and events which happen at the bookstore in collaboration with authors. Any memorable incident from any author’s event you can recall.
Kyle : We’ve had a few great events over the years, but nothing too crazy. I wish I could talk about the time that Rushdie spiked the punch, or something, but that hasn’t happened. One event that stands out: Pulitzer Prize winner James Forman Jr. is a friend of a friend and he came to talk about his book Locking Up our Own. That was probably our biggest and best event crowd.
Q5) What considerations do you keep in mind while curating the bookstore? Do you always prefer to have Best Seller on the shelves? Or does the Bookstore provide a platform to aspiring/underrated writers as well?
Kyle : Every bookstore has a limited amount of space and cannot carry everything. We try and maintain a healthy mix of books our staff loves, things our customers ask for, and out of the way things for people to discover. This may sound obvious, but one of the keys to being an independent bookstore is to exercise independence regarding what books you stock. We have a mix of new and used books, and we don’t try to carry all of them.
Q6) A new generation of customers has begun to think about building community not only in terms of a locality and physical space, but also as an online space. Successful independent booksellers have woven both communities together by developing a more direct and personal relationship with their customers through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Consumers often share their bookstore experiences on Instagram using the hashtag #bookstagram: that hashtag has been used on more than 35 million photos on the site since 2010. Do you think Instagram is acting as a catalyst in boosting the presence of bookstores? How has this hashtag helped the Bookstore?
Kyle : We do have an Instagram account (as well as Facebook and TikTok accounts), but we spend most of our efforts on Twitter. We’ve sold many, many books through social media this past year. Without it, the bookstore might not have made it through the pandemic.
Q7) Surveys continue to show that although technology is convenient, print books remain much more popular than e-books. Although technology provides convenience, print books give us a break from the technology and distractions in our daily lives.
How do you feel about the way technology is affecting book readership and book purchasing?
Kyle : To me it feels like the e-reader boom has come and gone and most people still enjoy books as individual physical objects.
Q8) What are the challenges usually faced by an independent bookstore in Washington D.C.? Could you tell us about the virtual or digital opportunities during the lockdown, and how far the Bookstore team efforts have been successful?
Kyle : The challenges indie bookstores in D.C. face are like those all bookstores face around the country — Amazon has a stranglehold on the marketplace. To stay alive, we have to offer things that they do not — a physical space in which people can browse, a sense of community, shared values, humanity.
These past 14 months have been tough. Since the pandemic began, our store has been open by appointment only. We’ve stayed in business by offering personally curated grab bags of books for customers who tell us their budget and preferences. It’s been very successful and has allowed us to continue to operate throughout the pandemic without having to lay off any employees.
Q9) How can everyone champion his/her independent bookselling community?
Kyle : Shop at your local bookstore and encourage others to do the same.
Q10) And, lastly what are your future plans for the bookstore?
Kyle : To stay slightly weird and very independent.
Thank you so much for collaborating in today’s post Kyle!
It’s a pleasure!
If any of my readers here , wish to know more about the bookstore. Do open the links mentioned below . They have a wonderful informative , articulated and well-curated website.
Website : https://www.capitolhillbooks-dc.com/
Facebook : https://www.facebook.com/CapitolHillBooks/
Instagram : https://www.instagram.com/capitolhillbooks/
Twitter : https://twitter.com/chbooksdc
Medium : https://medium.com/@chbooksdc