BY ELLEN TREIMEL — Robert Harper Books, the Hyattsville area’s only stand-alone bookstore, is slated to close its doors at the end of January 2018. The store opened in March 2016 on a short block of Rhode Island Avenue, just off the Trolley Trail and near the Riverdale MARC train station. The owner, Robert “Bob” Harper, envisioned the bookstore as a community gathering place that supported local art, music and culture.
Robert Harper Books is a unique place — the type of store for people who love to browse and buy items that jump out at them. The shelves are crammed with used books, ranging from fiction to cookbooks to a 12-volume collection, “The Works of Thomas Jefferson.” In addition to used books,Robert Harper Books sells used DVDs, LPs, CDs and VHS tapes. The walls are decorated with art that is for sale through the Hyattsville Community Arts Alliance. Near the middle of the lengthy store is a nook with a small table for children and a homey living room arrangement.
Throughout the store’s existence, Harper has regularly hosted cultural events with as many as three events taking place each week. For example, on the third Saturday of each month, Sid Gold, who is affiliated with the Washington Writers’ Publishing House, hosts three local authors who read excerpts from their writing, followed by an open reading for other writers. On Dec. 14, the store hosted the last Riverdale Rail Concert Series performance of the year. And Harper will hold a holiday party on Dec. 22 with music by Band Brûlée.
Harper has lived in Hyattsville for over 30 years, and he worked as an informational technology professional throughout his career. After retiring, Harper decided to open the used bookstore and dedicate some of its space to showcasing local arts and culture. Harper spent three years collecting donated books in his basement along with inexpensive purchases and consignments before opening the brick-and-mortar shop.
Unfortunately, after the first couple of months of being open, the store’s business dropped off. When asked about the impact of e-readers on the market, Harper said, “The biggest thing I think that’s changed is the old people like me … they have books all over the place, and those people are getting rid of those books. The only thing I still see is that everybody is coming in to buy books for their children.”
Harper said that his online sales bring in roughly five times the amount of money as his storefront sales. From the beginning, Harper has paid his staff a living wage of $15 an hour, but once operating costs and wages are factored in, the storefront is losing money. Harper says he will not be laying anybody off, though. His staff will continue to help with online sales.
Harper stated that the store’s biggest issue is lack of foot traffic. Aside from a barbershop next door, the nearby storefronts are currently shuttered. Although two popular Riverdale Park institutions, Town Center Market and the weekly farmer’s market, are within walking distance, getting to Robert Harper Books requires people to take a turn off the main thoroughfare of Queensbury Road. The road in front of the store had been closed while the Whole Foods was under construction. The recent completion of the Trolley Trail and the opening of Whole Foods Riverdale Park provide some hope that traffic past the store might increase and result in more people dropping in. The unfortunate reality, however, is that it might be too little, too late, for this quixotic book store and community gathering spot.
On Dec. 6, Harper held a brainstorming session on how to save the bookstore. Harper said they had a good turnout, but he still plans to close. They will move forward with the plan to stay in business through online sales only, unless they can get better financing or locate a more affordable storefront to rent. Notably, Robert Harper Books has the distinction of earning a 100 percent positive seller rating on Amazon.com.
The bookstore plans to go out with a bang. Band Brulee will bring their jazz-infused, Americana-marinated, alt-pop music to the bookstore for a $5 show, with all proceeds going to Robert Harper Books. The band will be joined by some great Riverdale musicians who will also be donating their time including blues master Miles Spicer and harmonica player Michael Sevener. Friday, Dec. 22, 7:30-10:30 p.m., Robert Harper Books, 6216 Rhode Island Ave., Riverdale Park.