At least during the pandemic, students can get a collection of books that fit their interests delivered to their doorsteps.
Capitol Hill Books at 657 C St. SE closed down when the pandemic first hit D.C., forcing the bookstore to learn new ways to retain customers. Since late March, co-owner Kyle Burk said the bookstore has been offering “grab bags” – curated boxes of books that customers can customize by price range and genre preferences.
“The year prior to the pandemic was probably the best financial year in the history of the bookstore, and we expected this year to be even better,” Burk said in an email. “Suffice it to say that 2020 had other plans.”
Since the end of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s order for the closure of non-essential business on May 27, customers have been allowed to make appointments to browse the three-story bookstore in groups of one or two people. In addition to small group appointments for browsing inside the store, Capitol Hill Bookstore also hosts outdoor sidewalk sales on the weekends.
Despite opening back up, the owner said he continued to run the grab bag service to keep up a strong consumer base.
The idea for the grab bags was born out of a conversation with a customer. Burk said a woman emailed the store asking if “she gave [them] $100” whether they could put together a stack of books for her based on her interests. They agreed and started universally offering the grab bag service, he said.
“We thought it was a great idea and started offering the service to everyone,” Burk said.
Customers worldwide can fill out a form with their contact information, shipping address and desired price range to receive a stack of books in the mail, according to the Capitol Hill Books website. Customers are also asked to describe the genres, authors or books they typically enjoy so Capitol Hill Bookstore employees can pick out books that fit the customer’s interests.
Customers can indicate any dollar amount that they would like to spend but in order for shipping to be free, you must spend at least $50. Patrons receive a Paypal request to finalize their order. They also have an option on the form to request a picture of the proposed order before it ships or to select the “blind stack” option for a mystery book delivery.
Burk added that the bookstore has seen an uptick in requests for novels written by authors of color in the past few months, adding that some of the most frequently requested genres include science fiction and mysteries.
“Some people want to escape reality and read nothing but happy endings, while others want to dig in and request dystopian fiction and books about plagues,” Burk wrote.
Burk said he can’t pinpoint one particular book he’d recommend, but he suggested people read the work of Spanish novelist, Javier Marías, “a writer that Americans often overlook.” Marías has written award-winning books including “A Heart So White” and “The Infatuations.”
When filling the orders, bookstore staff looks at the customer’s preferences and select books they think they might enjoy based on novels they’ve liked in the past, which customers can indicate on the order form.
“We just have a handful of employees,” Burk wrote. “They all know our stock – and books in general – very well.”
Burk said the store filled more than 300 orders worldwide in the first month of offering grab bags, but the total number of orders is confidential.
“The first month was by far the strongest month in terms of orders,” he wrote. “Since then it has gradually tapered off.”
He said the grab bags are primarily advertised on social media, and “a lot” of the orders the store has received come from clicks on the company’s Twitter page. He said the store will likely continue the grab bag service indefinitely, even after the pandemic subsides, because of its success in reaching people who live outside the District.
“It’s a great way for us to reach other customers who don’t live in D.C. or can’t make it down to our shop to browse,” wrote Burk.