Robert Harper makes good money selling books, but that hasn’t worked as well when running a physical bookstore.
For four years, the retired IT professional has sold books online at Amazon and Abe Books, earning around $10,000 a month. But since March of 2016, he’s also run a brick-and-mortar bookstore in Riverdale Park, earning about $2,000 a month.
That would be OK, except rent and electricity alone at the physical location cost him $3,000 a month.
Harper told his landlord he’ll be moving out on Jan. 31, though he still has hopes he can turn the business around. He’s working with an MBA to come up with a business plan that can pass muster with banks, which so far have refused to extend him more than a short-term loan at rates that won’t work for him.
Robert Harper Books is the only standalone bookstore along the Route 1 corridor. (You can buy books in the waiting area at Busboys and Poets, and the University of Maryland has a student bookstore on campus, and there’s no bookstore at the Mall at Prince Georges, though there is a Books-a-Million in Greenbelt.)
Even then, Robert Harper Books is more than that. You can buy records, DVDs and T-shirts in the store too. And Harper regularly holds concerts in the back of the bookstore, where couches and chairs are cozily arranged near a Chickering baby grand piano. Past performances have included up-and-coming Americana band Paint Branch Creek, noted banjoist Stephen Wade and singer-songwriter Skye Steele, among others.
But the concerts haven’t drawn enough of an audience to offset the costs, and foot traffic is still light in the area around Riverdale Park’s MARC station, where many storefronts remain empty. Harper said he’s open to another location, but hasn’t found one yet.
Some of the bookstore’s problems Harper chalks up to the learning curve behind any new business, noting that his original strategy of buying all of the books at an estate sale and selling them on consignment wasn’t cost effective. He also insists on paying his workers a living wage and spends too much out-of-pocket on the concerts.
But Amazon has upended the bookselling business for many bookstore owners.
The bread and butter of used bookstores are cheap classics and bestsellers — the $4 paperbacks most customers have heard of. Online, those sell for pennies, while rare and unusual books command higher prices. Since many readers have become accustomed to either reading books on Kindles or buying them online, it’s hard to get them into a physical bookstore.
Harper has a GoFundMe set up to help renovate the store, but he’s dubious about setting another one up to refinance.