East City Books

Owner Laurie Gillman Says, ‘Shop Small, Shop Local’

The non-fiction section has a great selection.

On Thursday, Dec. 15, visit East City Books near Eastern Market, to relax, take a load off, enjoy festive refreshments, a package wrap-a-thon, and a reading of Charles Dickens’ yuletide classic, “A Christmas Carol.”

But the story of how there came to be this bookstore – and all of its cornucopia of books and coffee mugs and art supplies and finger-puppets and book clubs and author readings and kiddie klatches and literary frolic – begins on the windswept Great Plains of west Texas, where owner LaurieGillman was born and raised, amid cowboy hats, cattle, “and not much else” except for cotton, oil, wind and tumbleweeds.

She grew up there, daughter of a car dealer, in a small town roughly equidistant between the oil patch of Midland and the flatland of Abilene and Lubbock, and then left to earn her degree in art history and English literature at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Married shortly after getting her B.A., she and her husband Mark lived in Dallas for a few years while she worked at the Dallas Museum of Art. When graduate school beckoned, it was for a fellowship at the University of Maryland, so she and Mark decamped for College Park. Her M.A. came after she began studies there with a focus on 19th-century French painters, but then she switched for her thesis to early Christian art.

They moved to Capitol Hill in 1993. That year, while sitting in the stacks at the Dumbarton Oaks Library, she had what she calls “a lightbulb realization that such scholarship was not my best way of being in the world.”

Gillman’s husband, meanwhile, was beginning to work as a lobbyist, with a focus on scientific societies, such as promoting nano-technology R&D. She was working at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), helping to edit scholarly journals. She also became a stay-at-home mom. They have three daughters, ages 21, 18, and 15.

Later on, in 2006-14, she became a volunteer with the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW), first on its board then as its president, finally as its development director. Then, she says, “I turned 50 this year, realizing that the next stage of my life would be different.” It was, in other words, what she admits is “a zigzaggy path” toward becoming the proprietor of a Capitol Hill bookstore.

That was a lightbulb moment also.

“I had been complaining,” she declares, “about there not being a bookstore in the neighborhood, ever since Trover bookstore closed in 2009,” a period which she says was a “low point for indie bookstores,” coming during the perigee of the Great Recession and also a perfect storm of the rise of e-book reading, the disruptor impact of Amazon’s discount pricing on the web and in the mail, and the big-box booksellers like Barnes & Noble in the mall. Plus the fact, she says, that rent is the great leveler of small bookshops.

Even so, she insists, it “didn’t make any sense” that the Hill didn’t have a single shop that sold new books. Riverby Books and Capitol Hill Books on C Street by Eastern Market, both on the Hill, are fine used bookstores, she adds, but they don’t sell new books. “It takes a village,” she declares, “and it takes a person.” Laurie Gillman was that person.

“But it’s hard to open a bookstore,” she says, “and it takes a big up-front investment” to bankroll the location, the fixtures, and the inventory. And then wait, patiently or not, for customers to show up and vindicate the act of faith needed to start a new business. If you build it, goes the maxim, they will come. After opening on April 30, Gillman says that people now are coming in and telling her and her staff of about 15 part-timers that they are “so happy that we’re here.”

She adds, “We’ve been busier than I projected since we opened – only August was a slow month.” It’s still a risk, however, “it’s still a ramp-up,” she says. “And we need to be ramped up in time for Christmas.” Thus the holiday party on Dec. 15, plus all the offerings and events on the drawing board and listed in the bookshop’s printed and digital newsletter.

These events include a raft of author talks. For example, on Nov. 3 Gilda Morina Syverson on “My Father’s Daughter,” her travel memoir about reconnecting with her family’s Italian roots; Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, speaking at the Hill Center on Nov. 15 about her career and her new book; mystery writer Ellen Crosby, author of “The Champagne Conspiracy,“sharing a glass of bubbly and talking about her other books also; on Nov. 29, Louise Farmer Smith discussing her critically acclaimed literary fiction, “One Hundred Years of Marriage” and “Cadillac, Oklahoma”; and on Nov. 30 a meeting of the store’s Reality Lit nonfiction book-club to discuss “The Worst Hard Time,” an account of America’s 1930s Dust bowl economic and natural disaster.

“We’re happy to celebrate the diverse array of talent here in our own city,” says Gillman, evoking what she calls “unique DC talents” such as Hill resident novelist Louis Bayard among many others. Bayard, in fact, is one of the store’s consistent best-sellers, along with the number-one in-store top-seller, the memoir by Ta-Nehasi Coates, “Between the World and Me.” Of course all the Harry Potter books sell well; and what she calls “literary fiction” comprises about a quarter all store sales, like the novels of Michael Chabon. Books for children, including so-called YA (young adults), make up about a third of sales, with additional niches for graphic novels and science fiction.

Getting to this point was never easy, she says, recalling that she “did a lot of research before I jumped into this” to spot possible pitfalls. She even enrolled in a week-long course for budding booksellers, as well as depending on wisdom gleaned from the trade association for small bookshops, the American Booksellers Association.
“Shop small, shop local” is Gillman’s mantra, starting with Small Business Saturday on Nov. 26. “Books are the perfect gift” she declares, with a calm confidence that the shop will push its new roots deep into the book-loving demographics of the Hill.

Her staff will track down hard-to-find books, she adds, and place special orders. Store space downstairs can be rented for special events seating up to 75 people. She also wants to expand the weekly story time for children on Tuesdays at 11 a.m. to regular weekend events for kids.

“Stop by,” she says with a smile, “and get to know us a bit.” Store hours are Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The two-level store is located at 645 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, Suite 100. Phone 202-290-1636. Shop online anytime also at www.eastcitybookshop.com.

Laurie Gillman

David Hoffman is a freelance writer covering mostly arts and entertainment. He lives on the Hill near Union Station. He is vice president for programs at the Woman’s National Democratic Club. And he always adds patiently, “Yes, men are also members” of the feminist and progressive political club founded in 1922, just after woman suffrage, and housed since 1927 in an historic mansion near Dupont Circle.

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