BY KIT SLACK — “A Wii?” Robert Harper, owner of Riverdale’s new bookstore, furrowed his brows and pressed the phone closer to his ear. “Oh. . .oh. . .weed. . . marijuana t-shirts. . . yeah. . . let’s hold on those for now. Thanks.” He was speaking with Richard Hickock, one of the many neighborhood friends contributing to his new venture. Hickock was offering a t-shirt inventory.
On March 1, Robert Harper Books opened across from the Riverdale Marc station next to the unisex hair salon. Harper said he envisions “a used bookstore and coffeeshop where all my friends (old and new) can congregate.”
One of his newest friends is Andrea Roberts, the proprietor of Apollo XII, the unisex hair salon next door. She said she is “very happy” about the new business. “I love books, all my family loves books!” She is also happy about the after-hours english-as-a-second-language classes that Harper is starting, in which some of her stylists may participate.
Harper holds a regular Thursday morning Spanish and English children’s story time. He is fundraising to add a coffee bar and a sound system for musical performances. He is a tenor in Cantigas, a Spanish language chamber choir.
Above the long rows of bookshelves, a large collection of paintings by members of the Hyattsville Community Artists’ Alliance (HCAA) hang on lime green walls. The HCAA is planning an opening reception in the bookstore on March 18.
Book-themed antiques, wooden book racks, and rocking chairs decorate the space, courtesy of neighborhood collectors Nina Faye and Mary Stevenson.
Toward the back of the store is a rack of Hickock’s t-shirts — “coolest pope ever”, and, despite Harper’s initial reaction, “a friend with weed is a friend indeed.”
And the books? Mr. Harper’s initial inventory came from the estate of his wife’s aunt, three years ago. Since then he’s accumulated 13,000 titles, the contents of the personal libraries of at least 50 people. He gets books on consignment or buys them from estates. He’s now selling 600 books on Amazon a month, and has 5 part-time employees.
The books are as eclectic as their donors, who include a federal judge, several University of Maryland professors, and a jewish congregation. Harper has a lutheran bible from the 1700s, Star Trek fan magazines, a roster of North Carolina infantrymen in the Civil War, the scores of Beethoven’s symphonies, a Catholic lectionary from 1969, and several books that boast inscriptions from the Kennedys. There are operas on vinyl, and VHS exercise tapes. His staff is working to alphabetize the fiction, a step that wasn’t needed for Amazon sales.
Independent used bookstores like Harper’s are making a comeback, thanks to the kind of localism that boosts the clientele at the Riverdale Park Farmers Market. Revenue from internet book sales helps too. And, since so many bookstores have gone under in the past few decades, there isn’t much competition. The Riverdale Bookstore & Coffee Depot closed in 2005. Hyattsville residents are happy to be able to walk to a bookstore again.
Harper, a retired IT professional for the chemistry department at the University of Maryland, has lived in Hyattsville for 30 years. What’s he reading? “I’m more of a magazine guy,” he says: Home Power, and Popular Science.