Washington, DC

An Interview with Laurie Gillman of East City Bookshop, Reflecting on Its First Five Years

Claire Handscombe

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Laurie Gillman headshot and East City Bookshop logo

East City Bookshop on Capitol Hill turned five years old this month. I'm lucky enough to get to work there. I spoke to Laurie Gillman, its founder, for the Brit Lit Podcast, and here is some of what she told me about the process of opening and running a bookshop and keeping it going over the last, challenging year.

CH: Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and about the bookshop you founded?

LG: I have lived in Washington DC for 30 years now, and in this neighborhood of Capitol Hill for 28 years. I grew up in Texas, so it still feels like that's really home, but I've been here way longer than I was there.

East City Bookshop is in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington, DC, so literally a few blocks from the Capitol building. I started it five years ago because at that point we didn’t have a bookstore selling new books, and we had not had one for about six years. I realised that no-one was going to open a bookstore, so I decided to do that. My mid-life crisis!

CH: It’s hard to imagine Capitol Hill without a bookstore, because it's a place where people read a lot and are very educated.

LG: Yes. And there was one here for 40 years that had been a family business. It was definitely a neighborhood bookstore, but it was more focused on Congress and working with Congress and sort of government agencies. It didn't really have enough space for an event space.

Bookstores had reached the lowest point of trying to be businesses in 2009. There were very few bookstores and more were closing every year than were opening. And there was actually a fire and the business was getting more and more difficult [so it had to close].

CH: One of the things that's great about independent bookshops is that each have their own individual characters, their personalities, the things they focus on. What would you say makes East City Bookshop special?

LG: I think it is the fact that it is such a neighborhood bookstore. It’s something I started not because I thought I really must open a bookstore, where can I put it? But I thought my neighborhood really needs this thing. How do you do that?

Because of transportation and the way our neighborhood is, almost everybody who works there lives in the neighborhood or in the city at least. A lot of people have been [in the neighborhood] even longer than I have. I think that that just comes through in a lot of the ways we think about things and about our customers.

When I first moved to Capitol Hill, it was a very different kind of neighborhood. And DC itself was having a very hard time. Crime was really, really high. Crack was a huge epidemic. There was so much gun violence and Capitol Hill had a really high crime rate. It was not the expensive, fancy place it is now. And so I think that, just having been through a lot of different things, it still has this feeling of its own little city because it's divided off by the Capitol and by the river on one side.

CH: I'd like to know a little bit about how you came up with the name. Why bookshop instead of bookstore?

LG: For us, at least, bookshop just sounds cozier and friendlier than bookstore. I wanted it to feel like a place that you could come and be, like a second home. We had moved down [to the East side of DC] and we we just thought it was such a lovely community and such interesting neighbors. And the Eastern part of the city was sort of ignored in a lot of ways by city leaders, by Congress.

And at that point there were only two independent bookstores left in DC. Politics and Prose and Kramerbooks, both of which have been around for a long time and are very well known. So I wanted to focus on the fact that we were going to be the only bookstore in the entire Eastern part of the city.

CH: Tell us about the process of starting the shop. How long before the official opening did you start planning?

LG: I was talking with a close friend, um, just about jobs that you would like to do, things you would maybe want to do if you didn't have all these constraints. I just got obsessed with it, especially since we hadn’t had a bookstore for a while. I was not making a fortune at my nonprofit jobs, so I felt like, that wouldn't be a big change.

I'm at a point in my life where I don't really feel like I have to prove things to anyone like you do when you're just starting out. So I literally kind of thought, okay, I am going to see if this will work now.

Even in 2014, the narrative was that bookstores were failing. They were going away. So I thought, I'm going to look this up and I'm going to do some research and it's going to convince me that this is a terrible idea.

So I did that. I literally googled “how to open a bookstore”. And I found a training program that the American Booksellers Association endorsed and partnered with. I signed up for that. And after a few days I realized: “Oh, if this will work anywhere, it will work in my neighbourhood.”

At that point nobody was talking about opening a bookstore in Washington, even though there were only two left. So I just continued to learn and I called up the wonderful owner over at One More Page Books in Arlington and I worked there for a while. I learned a lot from other bookstore owners. I called the owner of Politics and Prose and he gave me general advice.

CH: What’s been the most surprising thing about owning and running a bookshop over the last five years?

Two things: how much people say, thank you. we're so glad you're doing this. We're so glad you're here. We love this place. We're so happy to have a bookstore. And then how people look to you for certain opinions on things. I think because it is a community space. if you have any inclination to step into the role, you're a de facto community leader. That happens with other small business people too. But because bookstores really are a gathering place, which is one of the things that has always attracted me to them. I think that that happens sort of automatically.

CH: And how has the last year been?

Right now it's feeling a little better. But it was hard. It was all consuming. Looking back, in some ways, part of me is grateful for having a business to think about and employees that I wanted to keep employed and my own investments that I didn't want to just go down the tubes. There certainly were days when I was like, this is not worth it, but obviously overall I kept coming back to no, wait, no, wait, here's the way we can do it. I was happy to not be in my house all day every day. It was so stressful for everybody and it was just one more facet of carrying on.

CH: And how did the bookshop itself adapt?

LG: We had to shut down in the middle of March and then March seemed like it was like six months long. Just think how much we didn't know about the way the virus was transmitted about what we could do to make it better. So many people were dying and we just kept waiting for the next order from our local government. There were times early on when I thought we might as well just close the doors and give up.

But we did have our website as rickety, as difficult as it is. And so because we have a wonderful team, and a lot of people with different talents and people, even people who haven't really worked at the store stepped in and we figured out how to become a fulfillment center. So basically we were totally shut down and we were a warehouse with lots of packing stuff. And we had to figure out how to send out packages in bulk. Everybody was trying to do that.

CH: What about your reading life? Do you have a favorite genre? Do you read around everything?

LG: I do kind of read around everything. I don't know if it's like a form of ADHD or FOMO or what. I know people who are super fans of every genre, so I think, Oh, I should read a little of this, just so I have an idea of what that's about. But mostly I read literary fiction and I read a lot of history because there's just so much to learn. I'm a very distracted reader these days though. I have to say.

I finally got new glasses and contacts. And I can see now! I think that on top of being distracted and worried, it was really hard to read. So I'm feeling like a new person. That's very exciting.

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

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