I crouch inside a tunnel at the far left of H Street’s Solid State Books (600 H St. NE), beneath books about Trump and Stalin and beside a shelf of graphic novels.
The tunnel is maybe as tall as the tallest seven-year-old in your second grade class and short enough that you feel deeply nostalgic when you make it out and onto the grass green carpet that stretches across this corner of the store. Here, I find mothers sitting with infants and chatting, and an older woman making her way through a picture book.
“We’re really excited about getting younger kids in here,” Jake Cumsky-Whitlock, co-founder of the store says. In a sense, he explains, they’re “trying to grow readers.”
The store opened last year in the Apollo building, but owners Jake Cumsky-Whitlock and Scott Abel have been working together for well over a decade. The two started working together at Kramerbooks in 2004, where they learned the particulars of running a bookstore in DC.
At Solid State Books, location is central to mission. Events, panels and a children’s corner are some of the many ways the bookstore works to widen their audience. On its website, the bookstore states its aim—to “provide downtown Washington DC with the vital intellectual and social hub it so desperately needs.”
H Street is a nexus of many different neighborhoods, Cumsky-Whitlock explains as we sit beside the cafe area, where coffee drinks are spelled out of jumbo Scrabble pieces, and papers bunched together in a spiral, like a minimalist white rose, floating above.
There’s Capitol Hill to the south, Trinidad, and NOMA—a diverse cluster of communities. Cumsky-Whitlock says bookstores, and intellectual gathering places in general, are missing from this part of the city.
While new to the neighborhood, Cumsky-Whitlock notes, Solid State Books can be a site for meeting and discussion among residents—“and we don’t want to shy away from that.” Next door is a Whole Foods. The neighborhood is gentrifying, and there’s no clean answer. “We don’t want to pretend that we’re blind to it,” he admits. Solid Street Books has worked with H Street Main Street, he says, “to get more folks in here who would otherwise not come in.”
Despite the “online behemoth who shall not be named,” as Cumsky-Whitlock puts it (and he doesn’t mean Voldemort), the co-founder says that the future for independent bookstores is not as bleak as once expected. When they attend industry trade shows, they meet people from other cities their age, or even younger, founding bookstores.
“It’s neat to be part of a broad nation wide community that is doing broadly similar things.”
Solid State Books is open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. Reach them at 202-897-4201, www.solidstatebooksdc.com.