Loyalty Books is dotted with furniture from Hannah Oliver Depp’s childhood. The bright yellow chair that’s made for sitting down and reading away the afternoon. The delicate lady table that’s crammed with planners and notebooks. The pastel green desk that is covered with cards. Between the bookshelves are slices of Oliver Depp’s life, but you don’t need to know the back stories to know she’s successfully turned the old Upshur Street Books space into a book store that is completely hers. From the stack of Elizabeth Acevedo novels, to the shelves filled with books with covers facing front (instead of spines), Oliver Depp’s footprint is everywhere. After working in other people’s book stores, consulting book stores and successfully running a pop-up book store in Silver Spring, Oliver Depp finally has a place that is fully her own.
We stopped by on a dreary day to chat about her former life as a child clown, the amount of books she reads in a week (six?!) and her goals for Loyalty Books. Settle in your favorite chair and crack this one open like a good book.
You started working at Politics and Prose, right?
I went to P&P a lot when I was a little kid, but that’s where I would study [as a grad student]. If it was two in the morning I would go to Kramer’s so I could have pie.
I was working [at Politics and Prose] part time when I wrote my thesis, then full time after that and stayed for five years. It was really funny to go from hanging out there all the time to working there. It’s a big enough place that people don’t always get the memo. They’re like, “Ma’am, you can’t come back here.” And I’m like, “No, I need to learn how to use the register!”
What was your thesis?
It was on the uses of medieval literature during the interwar period in Britain. So it was about dealing with memory and trauma in a transitional period in British history. I studied medieval literature and modern literature and I specifically focused on Arthurian myth. A lot of it is the way we reject new topics and reuse old topics… in times of stress and trauma we go back to what we know. Everyone in England, and generally in Europe, were full on rejecting the Victorian era, so they ended up going back further. There were a lot of references to Arthurian myth, Dante. I focused on T.S. Eliot and Dorothy L. Sayers, but it was high and low. It would be Virginia Woolf, C.S. Lewis, it would be all over the place.
There’s a reason a lot of our fantasy is from that period, like Tolkien and stuff. They were like, “This sucks, what if there were dragons instead of giant tanks? What if these battles seemed more moral because we’ve lost faith in the structure of war?”
Do you still have a passion for medieval literature?
Totally. It’s a very big passion of mine. I love research and academia and I love teaching. It is one of my favorite reasons to do bookstore things, because it’s community building which is one of the things I loved about teaching. Helping people find the right book, helping people explore it with them, working through topics.
It’s one of the reasons I’m currently not an academic. Academia doesn’t care as much about teaching anymore… It was hard to watch the best teachers get pushed out because they wanted to teach and there being no money in the institution for that. So I went to the wild, moneymaking world of bookselling!
You pivoted to that big money!
There’s no money in books. It’s really funny. To us, publishing makes a lot of money, but publishing is the joke of all the other professional, white color class jobs. It’s like journalism, there are four people making money and everyone else is dying. It’s a very old industry too, so it’s kind of set up with a different time period in mind. It’s finally starting to evolve, but it’s slow. It did not pick up what the world was putting down in the 90s, so it’s playing catchup.
Books? Online? Crazy!
People who are differently abled need to be able to get a hold of books? What are you talking about!
It’s funny too, obviously we have paper books, but we also sell ebooks, we sell audiobooks. Once indie bookstores started being able to sell those, we were very happy. You’re never going to make a ton of money off of it, but it’s a way of keeping your customer from going somewhere else. Also, for those of us who care about these things and realize it should be built into our business practices, if you have issues with vision or anything like that, ebooks are more inclusive. It really happened before I became a full time professional bookseller, but in the early 2000s when everyone was like, “It’s all about paper,” I was like, guys! You don’t realize you’re telling a bunch of people that they don’t matter. John Hodgman has that saying, “Nostalgia is the most dangerous impulse.” It’s toxic. It really can be.
So you’re more of an audiobooks person than a podcast person?
Oh yeah. I like listening to non-fiction and reading fiction, but that’s not always true. If someone is an amazing reader… Like Elizabeth Acevedo, who wrote The Poet X and is also an international slam poet, she can read a book out loud. She did the audiobook for Ibi Zoboi’s retelling of Pride and Prejudice. It takes place in gentrifying Brooklyn and it’s so good. She read the audiobook and I was captivated. The problem is, with audiobooks like that, I just end up sitting and listening. I don’t move. I enjoy the experience, but it’s almost like a radio play if it’s fiction.
I listen to a lot of memoirs on audio. Like the Heavy is an amazing book and the author has this molasses, black man, southern, deep voice. He’s speaking about some of the most traumatic shit I have ever heard, but it was so engrossing. I like to listen while I’m doing the dishes, running errands, making sure no one speaks to me while I’m on the bus.
What is your schedule like these days?
It does change day to day, but most days… I’m at the store every day for eight hours. We’re closed on Mondays, so that’s the day we get stuff done. Upshur Street, by and large, is closed on Monday, but we will still sometimes do events with the Reading Room and Petworth Citizen. One of the things I love about Citizen is that they’re open on Mondays. We have a tarot reading class that’s coming up that we’re going to do on Monday night with some wine, we’re doing those kind of 7 p.m. – 9 p.m. events.
My schedule is sometimes I’m on the floor and sometimes I’m taking meetings around town. We are actively looking for investors for a location in Silver Spring. I had a sales rep meeting today, they come in and they’re like, “Do you want to carry this book? Do you want to carry this card line?” So we meet with those folks. Or we’re going to meet with a local school to see if we want to do an event together. A lot of it, especially right now, is running around and hustling while people get to know us and we build a footprint here.
But I’m always on the floor for at least four to seven hours of the day. Which is good. This is why I do it. I don’t dislike the other parts, I love a spreadsheet so I will happily play with the inventory and the numbers. I enjoy that side of it, but I definitely did not get into retail at a professional career level so that I could stare at a spreadsheet or answer emails. Anytime the door is open, my priority is the floor.
I wanted to try and chart the path of how this all happened. I know you and Paul Ruppert opened a pop-up bookstore in Silver Spring, which grew into you taking over the Upshur Street Books, but how did you guys meet? How did the idea for the store develop?
I met Paul through Anna Thorn, who was the manager of Upshur Street Books when they first opened. The book world is extremely tiny. I had consulted with him a couple times and I just respect the hell out of him and his passion for D.C.’s development, this neighborhood in particular. There are not a lot of people trust and I trust him.
It was very easy to work with him and we found that we got along and had similar work styles while I was doing the pop up. I had long been interested in the future of Upshur Street Books, but it was never quite my bookstore. It was a bit more of a general bookstore, a little more focused on literary fiction. It was just not quite mine. When he said he was interested in focusing more on his restaurant, but really wanted to keep a bookstore in the neighborhood, it seemed like a natural transition.
We’re still figuring out exactly what the neighborhood wants, but as I talk to my sales reps and meet with local authors, I’m getting a very strong sense. I also have a strong taste myself. I love genre fiction, I’m not afraid of commercial fiction at all. I grew up reading fantasies, mysteries, romance that kind of thing. I think we have more of a footprint of that in the store and we’re growing it. Also, we’re really focusing on children’s literature.
You’ve mentioned it, and it’s on your website, but you’re very focused on community building. What’s the success there? When will you know you’ve fit in with the community?
There are a couple really funny things that I use to measure this. When a kid walks home from school and meets their parents at my bookstore. When I see kids growing up in my bookstore. When a parent comes over to see their kid’s apartment and they go, “We have to go to Loyalty, you have to see my neighborhood bookstore.” The only way you can know is repeated customers who use you as part of your routine.
The other way is sales. They tell me pretty clearly if they’re happy about us or not. If people walk in and they’re glad you’re there, but they don’t walk out with anything… They came in hoping to be surprised and you didn’t have it. That means you’re missing your mark still. There are various reasons for that. Sometimes it’s cash flow, sometimes you’re waiting on an order. When you’re starting out… We’re building up our inventory right now, we’re being careful. I’m not going to hit every person every time, but you should be able to walk in and be inspired by what’s on my shelves. Book selling is a strange alchemy.
In an interview, you talked about your shelving technique and how you turn the books so you can see the covers and not the spines. How did you come about that? What’s the reasoning behind it?
There are a few different things. It really depends on the kind of store, but this bookstore is physically small. We will never have every book. We will never be P&P or Solid State, which have very large footprints and can shelve a lot more. That’s one of the things I love about having multiple bookstores in a community, each one can be very different.
Focusing on reading the community and figuring out what they want… How do you then make the space exciting? What I care about is, almost a “Please Touch Me” Museum and an Instagram heavy vibe. I also have a background in theatre and my favorite thing was set dressing. I love to think about how books make a home. You want to be able to walk in and imagine this book on your shelf or laying on your bed. The cover really helps with that. I also push constantly with publishers to make books more beautiful objects.
As independent booksellers, we get to spend a lot of time with our publishing partners. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to have a career in independent bookselling, because I saw the influence we were able to have over publishing catalogues. And being like, you need more books by brown ladies, you need more books by queer people, and they can’t all be didactic! Brown people like to fall in love and solve mysteries. We like those things too!
Being able to have those conversations is extremely rewarding to me. It almost feels reciprocal. When I’m proud of a book, I want to spend a lot of real estate on it. I think The Poet X is one of the best things written in the last 10 years, so I want to have a stack and it’s going to be faced out. A lot of it comes back to my aesthetic, but the brass tacks is that every piece of real estate in your bookstore is costing you money. So I want to devote that to the things I’m most proud of and the things the community wants the most.
What is the ultimate sin in book design?
One of the ultimate sins is a textured white book that will become filthy as soon as you take it out of its box. Then no one wants to buy it because it’s the dirty one. They look really cool, if no one ever touches it. It happens a lot with non fiction political books.
I think, unfortunately, there is a very cheap way of making paperback books with low resolution covers, and you can tell. You as a customer might not understand the reason why this book looks cheap and feels cheap… but it kind of looks like it was made in a Kinkos in the 90s. Those will come from large big five publishers sometimes. And I’m like, you have to spend more money on your book covers. This doesn’t help either of us. Cheap paper and low resolution photos will be the end of all of us.
Alternatively, who is doing the best job with book design?
As far as big publishes, whenever they do French flaps. That’s a paperback book that has the flap inside, those are called French flaps. Deckled edges, paper cut edges, I’m a big sucker for those.
Usually a small press does something distinctive and wonderful. New Directions has some really lovely production. City Lights, you can identify them when they’re on the shelf. Feminist Press often makes really beautiful books and they’re a tiny publisher out of an academic institution.
Europa Editions always does the French flaps and I’m a sucker for those.
Now that I know what they’re called, that changes my life… Also, how do you feel about Book Instagram and how much does it affect what you do?
Oh I love Bookstagram. It affects me a lot. It depends on what market you’re in. I have a lot of bookselling compatriots around the country who say that book bloggers and book Instagram does nothing to move the needle and I’m like, not true for me! D.C. has a very strong Bookstagram community. There are some very wonderful people who host book clubs around town and sometimes they alert me to books I don’t know. Bookstagram is wonderful.
I think most peoples anger about Bookstagram is really sexist. It’s a lot of young women who do it and they think books are beautiful and worth taking cool pictures of and people are like, “You have tea and a book and cool socks, you definitely don’t read,” and you’re like, “Well… I read the book and that’s why I put it on my Instagram.” There’s some weird sexist patterns behind hating the women of Bookstagram. It is mostly women too. Anytime it’s mostly women and people can’t tell you quite why they hate it… I’m suspicious.
For me, it really helps because they often bring to light diverse authors. There is a hashtag started by a DMV book blogger called #DiverseSpines that I follow religiously and I make sure I have those books on my shelves. It can help people find your store. It can help people know you have an online presence.
Books are a visual medium! Why would I not love Bookstagram?
What’s the hardest part of your job?
The fact that book stores don’t make any money. People often joke that the customers are the greatest and the worst part of your job, which is true… But you are always walking a line. Even when you become a big successful bookstore or a small successful bookstore… The most profitable bookstores in the country are making minuscule net profit. We want to pay our staff well because they’re often the brightest most interesting people in the world and they work very hard and you want to reward that. You get a minuscule margin on the books. I love gift items, so I’m happy I can put a ton of gift items in my store. I love stationary. I love weird gift-y things, we focus on a lot of feminist gift items from local vendors. I see that as a part of my mission and also part of building community. Some people are more resistant to it in the industry, but that’s also sort of fading. But, brass tacks, you have to sell them. Or you will close.
The real thing that closes most bookstores, and the thing I’m always aware of, is your rent. If your rent goes up… You can’t raise the prices of your books, you can’t cut your staff. People come in for the experience of being hand sold a great book by a knowledgeable staff member. That is our greatest asset. The way the store looks and the staff people in it, that’s the experience I have to offer. I’m never going to be able to undersell.
This is an amazing community. Everything is wonderful except the fact that you don’t make any money… And I’m fine with not making any money, but we need to make enough money to keep growing. It’s a harsh reality that you have to look at everyday.
How many books do you read a year?
I read about six books a week. That includes graphic novels, poetry, listening to books… And I will give up on a book.
How do you know when to give up?
I had to learn. That was maybe the hardest thing to learn about bookselling. I’ve worked retail since I was like 12-years-old, that part was not hard for me, but I hated giving up on a book. I had been in academia for forever and you can’t give up on a book even if you hated it, the whole point was that you needed to get through a learn the things and have a critique.
But I have to stay up on what’s new and increase my knowledge of what has been published in the last 20 years, because I was reading a lot of old dead white dudes. It was really hard to learn that, but I learned it fast. Usually if a book doesn’t grab me in the first maybe 20 pages…
I will say, reading a lot of books a year sounds really impressive to people, but I have three degrees in reading. Basically. It’s a very strong muscle.
I feel like that would make you more tired of it.
No, actually, while we were doing construction on the space and I was also at a couple of conferences and I was running around working on all these partnerships and investors, I was barely doing any reading. It is what keeps me going. Between reading a book and sleep, I will always choose reading a book. If I’m unhappy and grumpy A. My blood sugar is low so give me a spoonful of peanut butter and B. Give me a book. It probably means I haven’t read anything in a while.
What was the last book you read?
I tend to read in batches.
So what are the six books are you reading this week?
A fourth coming book by Sarah Gailey called Magic for Liars. It’s awesome. It takes place in San Francisco at a magic school and it’s a noir detective mystery. Elizabeth Acevedo has a new book out called With the Fire On High, it’s about a young woman who wants to become a chef. It’s another young adult album, but it’s not in poetry form and she totally knocked it out of the park. The character is a single mother and I loved the actual narrative arc of the book, but I was so happy to see a book about a young mother that’s not about the trials of being a young mother.
Another book called Underground, which is the beautiful scientific writing, nature, history book about human interaction since the dawn of time with the underground and our obsession with the underworld and literally the dark, damp under-ness of the planet. Caves and… It’s so hard to describe. It’s going to be so hard to sell to people because it’s dark and damp and scary and it is the best book.
The books I finished that just came out… Alyssa Cole has a new romance novella in her current series that she has going on. She has a series called the Reluctant Royals and it’s all people who are somehow international royalty and the normal people they intersect with and it’s fantastic. The last one, Duke by Default, had the best descriptor I’ve ever read about being someone with ADHD. They’re romance novels with something to say. They’re so good. The current one is this novella about two black queer women and following them through two days of their lives, one a year ago and one present day as they fall in love wandering around New York. It was awesome, it was hot, it was great.
Can you tell me a little bit about the consulting you do on the side?
I really care about the future of independent bookstores. The future of retail, the future of our downtowns and what our communities look like. There are certain things we desperately need to keep about retail and there are things we desperately need to change about retail. Being aware of differently abled-ness and how it affects your retail establishment. Being aware of changes in politics and publishing, but also it needs to still match your vision and be true to your vision. I was lucky enough to join the American Booksellers Association and our regional bookselling association pretty early on in my career. I had good mentors in the business who were like, “If this is something you’re thinking about for your career, you should come to these conferences. You should meet these people.” Just by being on panels and having conversations with people, I realized one of the amazing things about independent bookselling is that we share everything. We can’t share our numbers, but we share best practices, we share advice, we say this worked for me and this didn’t work.
I was spending a lot of my time advising people on those things. However, I also realized that some people need a little more help than that and there’s only one full time, all they do is consult bookstores company in the country. If I don’t know the answer I will tell you the person who knows the answer. I just started saying, “Throw a threw shekels my way and I’ll help you out with x, y or z.” Sometimes that involves me going to a store and helping them run a conference or going to a store and helping them figure out the best way to arrange the flow of the book floor. Or talking through staff management with them. Or saying, “Hey, I’m not the greatest events person, but so and so is.” It’s gradually become a larger and larger part of how I spend my time. I get referred to by other people and approached by people, so I just decided I needed to form an LLC and make it a real business. It’s so rewarding because I love bookselling with my whole body. The only way it will survive is if the indie channel as a collective is doing well. I’m not going to have the answer for every store, but if talking through your staff management issues or talking through what kind of books to bring in is going to help another store, I’m going to do that.
The flip side of that is I was doing a lot of emotional labor for a lot of people, specifically as it pertains to diversity at bookselling. I’m on the American Booksellers Committee on Diversity and I was on the task force that started that committee. I’m always happy to have a conversation, but the amount of my time that was taking… I’m not actually helping anyone by devaluing the work. This is cheating myself and the industry out of the understanding this is a professional industry and we need to charge for things sometimes. We’re a little too nice sometimes. We have to treat this like a job.
This is usually my first question, but I’m glad we’re doing it as the last question, what was your first job?
I had two jobs almost exactly at the same time. My mother was a small business owner. She developed a business called Children’s Court Jesters, which was a family entertainment business. We did clowning, balloon animals, my brothers juggled fire and walked on stilts, my sister and I did face painting. She was a professional storyteller and a professional clown, and she loved it. She made a business so she could do kids birthday parties and corporate events. From the time I was about 10 on I worked with her. That was my first job.
On the flip side, men will say incredibly creepy things to a child in a clown costume. I think the first time I ever dealt with a #MeToo situation I was in full clown make up and I was maybe 9 or 10. I’ve also been this tall since I was 10 years old, but it’s still horrifying. Also learned that humanity is pretty gross pretty quickly. I’ve been in customer service since I was a child because my mom did it.
The other first job was working on a farm. I wanted to horseback ride and we couldn’t afford horseback riding lessons or the equipment or the horse, but I could work on a farm and get the ride. I’m a terrible rider. I have no form. I am awful, but I have such a good time. I worked mucking, cleaning, soaping up the horse. Everything.