Holiday shoppers on historic H Street in Washington, D.C., have a new bookstore to browse as Solid State Books has opened a pop-up shop steps away from its future permanent home.
Open for the next eight weeks, the pop-up shop is selling a mix of fiction, nonfiction, children’s books, and gifts in a 1,000-square-foot space. “We feel like we put a lot of work into the pop-up to make it look really nice and warm and welcoming for the holidays,” Solid State co-owner Scott Abel told Bookselling This Week. “We felt it was important to get open and deliver on the promise of bringing a great independent bookstore to this neighborhood.”
Co-owner Jake Cumsky-Whitlock said it’s taken a flurry of work and a plentiful supply of plywood to get the pop-up ready. “Scott and his dad built all the shelves in about four or five days,” he said. “They’re very nice. They’re substantial enough to get us through the next couple of months before we transition into the main store, where we’ll have more permanent fixtures.”
Both the pop-up and the future store are housed in street-level retail space in a new building called The Apollo, which has residential apartments above and Whole Foods as an anchor tenant.
Abel and Cumsky-Whitlock are longtime bookselling professionals and veterans of iconic D.C. bookstore Kramerbooks & Afterwords, where Abel was general manager and Cumsky-Whitlock head buyer.
Friends as well as colleagues, the pair had long dreamed of opening a business together. “When we met, we instantly shared a love of books, obviously, but also music and D.C. sporting life,” Abel said. “We entertained opening a few different businesses together because we felt that D.C. was growing in a lot of different ways.”
The co-owners share a vision for their future space, which is 4,300 square feet with a sales floor of about 3,000 square feet. About 600 square feet will be a café.
“It’s going to feel like a city bookstore. It will feel lively and bustling,” Abel said. “We’re going to have a small café and we’ll serve beer and wine for events. So, I imagine people will be hanging out in the café, grabbing a bite. It will definitely not feel like a sleepy bookstore. It will have a liveliness from people coming and going. We’re in a busy commercial corridor.”
The interior is designed with events in mind, including bookcases that roll back to reveal an event space roomy enough for 100 seats and another 100 attendees to stand.
“We’re reverse engineering the bookstore,” Abel said. “We wanted to make sure we had enough space for events. Then we wanted to make events even better. How do we do that? We build in A/V to start. We made sure we have a nice podium and a lot of seating. We have good seating angles. We have beer and wine in the evening for all the participants and the people attending.”
Cumsky-Whitlock said that as tenants of The Apollo, Solid State has access to rooftop recreation areas, including a show kitchen that would be ideal for cookbook author events and a conservatory with views of the Capitol.
The location offers easy access to customers, with a free street car that runs in front of the store, public parking beneath and on the street, and Union Station six blocks away.
The proximity of Amazon-owned Whole Foods isn’t worrying the pair since the online retail giant already announced two standalone bookstores in the larger D.C. region. “We think this Whole Foods will remain a real grocery store,” Abel said. “There isn’t a grocery store for a handful of blocks.”
The grocery store and bookstore are in demand in the neighborhood because it’s increasingly populated by families, Cumsky-Whitlock said. “My kids go to school just a few blocks from here, and I know first-hand from all the parents in the school how excited they are to have this,” he said.
A vibrant children’s section will be a highlight of the new store. “When we got this nice big space, the two things that we wanted to focus on were a large children’s section and a large flexible space for events,” Cumsky-Whitlock said. “The children’s section is going to have comfy areas for kids to get down on the carpet. We’ll have a nice area for the kids to splay out and have pieces for the kids to climb on or sit on, and a nice place to do story time and musical acts as well.”
The shared interests that fueled the partners’ friendship will also have ample shelf space. “We’re going to have a great selection of books about music, books about sports,” Abel said. “We’re both committed to good history and poetry and some of those true literary sections like autobiography and biography and philosophy.”
Abel said Solid State will be known for its extensive backlist. “We really want to be known for having every novel of Ishiguro on the shelf, every volume of that landmark Churchill biography,” he said. “That can really set you apart from a Barnes & Noble or an Amazon store. It also sends a signal that we mean what we say, that we’re building a great independent bookstore and when you come in and ask for a book on philosophy or travel writing or music, you can find things that define the section historically and also the forthcoming titles.”
Their strategy also involves hiring full-time booksellers who want to make a career in the field. “We’re really committed to grooming career booksellers,” Cumsky-Whitlock said. “We sort of fell into bookselling ourselves. We did not set out to become career booksellers. It was not a calling for us, but we love what we do, and we think other people will love what we do as well. They might give it a shot if we can give them a living wage and benefits that are attractive enough to make it a viable career.”
The Solid State name ties into the idea of a bookstore being a “solid” place for a career and for a community to gather.
“We’re committed to building a great independent bookstore. We feel this neighborhood needs one,” Abel said. “And the name is a little bit of a nod toward that physical, analog experience. Solid as in the book that’s in your hand physically, holding it with the feel and smell of the paper. And the state comes from the statehood that we want for the city.”
Solid state is, of course, a word that also is familiar to anyone old enough to grow up with memories of advertisements for “solid-state electronics” as a new feature. “It has a nice, throwback kind of feel, harkening to an earlier time,” Cumsky-Whitlock said.
“We wanted to reference that without being too literal,” Abel added. “We just liked the way it sounded.”