Edelweiss Goes to Washington: Touring the Black-Owned Bookstores of D.C.
“We got off the train on Sunday, dropped our bags, and hit the streets!”
On June 5th, our VP of Strategic Partnerships Linda A. Duggins and Retail Success Manager Deidre Dumpson kicked off a three-day tour of bookstores in the Washington, D.C. area. The pair visited Lost City Books, Busboys and Poets, and the Charnice Milton Community Center and met with representatives from some of the Black-owned shops that serve the D.C. community—Loyalty Bookstores, Sankofa, and Solid State Books.
“There were layers to this visit,” says Deidre. “We wanted to answer questions and gather feedback to make sure that Edelweiss is doing right by bookstores overall, but we were also there to discuss offerings that Edelweiss could develop specifically to support booksellers operating from the margins.”
“In visiting these bookstores, we wanted to hear about folks’ needs with our own ears. We wanted to explore ways our platform could help booksellers do what they do best and love most—which is putting books in people’s hands,” says Linda.
Bridging the gap
The idea for the bookstore tour grew in part from Deidre’s experience starting as Edelweiss Retail Success Manager during Fall 2021. She found that the long and isolating pandemic years had separated Edelweiss and booksellers from one another, and she was looking to strengthen those connections.
“Not being able to see booksellers in person made it difficult to communicate that we care and are dedicated to the work of serving bookstores. So chatting with booksellers in their stores was hugely important to me in bridging that gap.”
At the same time, when Deidre arrived at Edelweiss, she teamed up with Linda to lead an effort to center booksellers of color within the company’s commitment to promoting equity in the book industry.
“As Black publishing professionals, Deidre and I know firsthand what it feels like to work in this industry, where there is serious underrepresentation of Black folk and other folk of color,” says Linda.
“When it comes to diversity in the book industry, the discussion usually focuses on editors, publicists, marketers, and those kinds of roles. Booksellers of color are not brought up enough in the conversation. But there is a need, and Deidre and I are committed to using our platform to uplift them and help level the playing field.”
Prior to their tour, during Spring 2022, the pair had conducted a series of virtual BIPOC bookseller townhalls, where they made space for personal conversations between booksellers and Edelweiss staff.
“We talked during these virtual meetings about what BIPOC booksellers need to run their operations and run them well. Our natural next step was building on that work by connecting with booksellers offline,” says Deidre.
Finding history and community in Chocolate City
Deidre and Linda decided on Washington, D.C. for these first in-person visits because of its richness both in bookstores and in Black history and life.
“D.C. was known as Chocolate City. So when we talked about kicking off meeting with folks in person, D.C. felt like the perfect place both because of its concentration of Black-owned bookstores and the history of the community there,” says Linda.
The lineage of Black bookstores in D.C. stretches back to 1968 and the Drum and Spear Bookstore, which was founded by a former secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Charlie Cobb. The store specialized in books written by Black authors for Black readers and was a site of politics and activism, which made it a target for monitoring and interference by the FBI.
But Drum and Spear persisted as a place of learning and culture and was, as Black bookstores have consistently been, an important space for kinship and community.
“The Black-owned bookstores in the D.C. area are operating within a long tradition of community and resourcefulness,” says Deidre. “So it was important to us to meet with and learn from these booksellers.”
Deidre and Linda used their time with each store to do some informal training and answer questions about Edelweiss but also discussed the shops’ stories, missions, and what made them each unique in their community.
“Every single store was so different. Every single store had their own personality—strong personalities at that—and stand-out elements,” says Deidre. “From Sankofa and its commitment to small, radical presses and kids lit to Loyalty and its diverse classics section and then the beautiful atmosphere of Solid State Books."
“It was also special to hear the shops’ come up stories and the history of their survival. People operating from the margins often must find wealth and resources that aren’t traditional, and we’ve consistently done that and have been successful. I find these stories beautiful and affirming.”
The pair built on these conversations by exploring the community surrounding the bookstores. They walked around the campus of Howard University, learning about Toni Morrison’s life at the school, spending time at its Caribbean Tree, and seeing the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority house on campus. They also passed by the headquarters of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs and the O Street Mansion, Rosa Park’s home away from home in D.C.
“As we toured these bookstores and the area, it was really nice to just feel the presence of so many Black people and so much Black history. And it was powerful to reflect on the fact that this Capitol was built by formerly enslaved people,” says Linda.
What comes next
Back at Edelweiss, Deidre and Linda are using their tour to build out plans for a BIPOC bookseller scholarship program, which will support booksellers of color with training, Edelweiss subscriptions, and more to help them leverage the platform.
“It is clear from our conversations with booksellers that Edelweiss has the potential to make these stores even more successful and sustainable. We plan to relay all that we’ve learned back to publishers and others who are invested in their success to hopefully get funding to meet that need,” says Linda.
Deidre is also working with Edelweiss’s Education team to develop resources and training to address the areas of confusion identified by booksellers as well as with the Product team to consider new features that the booksellers requested.
“There is a lack of clarity on many aspects of Edelweiss’s interaction with publishers and who is responsible for what, there is confusion about how booksellers can submit to IndieNext on our site, and more,” says Deidre. “And, we heard common themes about features that would help booksellers in their work—particularly better searching and filtering to find titles by diverse authors for their stores.”
The pair hope to continue these conversations by touring other parts of the country and meeting with more booksellers in different areas.
“Maybe somewhere in the Midwest next. Edelweiss is based in Michigan, so we’d love to visit Detroit and its booksellers,” says Linda.
“I’m really excited to continue to meet with folks,” says Deidre. “Although I am forcing myself to stay home for the next couple weeks to read all the books I picked up on this trip!”