By: Taylor Ardrey
Robert Harper Books has reached the end of its chapter closing after 20 months in Riverdale Park, Maryland.
Bob Harper decided to open Robert Harper Books about two years ago with the idea to have a space for a various multitude of books, which he inherited from his aunt. With a spark of interest in books, Harper started selling his inherited books online through Amazon.com. With the success in sales he used that revenue to expand and create a place where locals can get hard copies of books and attend small folk and classical concerts performed by local musicians. However, the struggle of opening a small business in 2017 became evident after a few months of opening Robert Harper Books.
According to the Small Business Association(SBA), “30 percent of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, 50 percent during the first five years and 66 percent during the first 10.“ With major companies like Amazon growing, not only are small businesses fluctuating, but so are major corporations like Walmart.
“My mission was to have live music and have an event space where people would come and congregate and have a lot of community interaction. We also hoped to be able to provide a lot of different kinds of books and provide a big variety of books in price structure,” explained Harper.
The lack of community support made it hard to have live performances for his bookstore, which was an important part for Harper. In the beginning, the concerts were free, but it was still difficult for Harper to get up to 20 people to attend the event. Therefore, Harper started to charge admission for the concerts hoping that it would initiate more people more to attend since they invested their money. Unfortunately, that tactic was unsuccessful, and the bookstore still couldn’t get enough participation from the community.
The location of the bookstore does not draw a lot of foot traffic. It is located near a historic railroad, barbershop and massage place in Riverdale, Maryland. Most of the foot traffic in the Hyattsville/Riverdale area is in the Arts District by the Busboys and Poets and near the Metro.
(Above: Inside Robert Harper Bookstore where concerts are held.)
Harper’s support for his community runs deep as he not only tries to have local concerts, but also uses his establishment to support local artists. The Hyattsville Community Artist Alliance comes to the bookstore every month to give Harper their latest art to sell.
“We wanted to be like the restaurants – think local and eat local. So, I thought the local artists would come and the people would buy local art. But we haven’t sold a piece of art in a year. It is very discouraging how we have artists give us their work, but people don’t come and buy it,” said Harper.
Harper’s values lie in being supportive and close-knit when it comes to his business and work environment. Things were no different when it came to his employees.
“I wanted to have a good relationship with employees. I decided that when I hired employees I hired everyone at the same level and paid everyone $15 an hour. I have a great group of workers and they really tried their hardest to make this successful. I probably would’ve made it if I paid $8 an hour, but I didn’t want to pay that. It doesn’t seem fair to me to make anyone work for that kind of money. That’s why a McDonald’s can make it and a bookstore can’t,” said Harper.
Chastity Morris, an employee, has been working at Robert Harper Books since it opened two years ago. She has been Harper’s right hand and works with operations, human resources, and administration. “The bookstore is very peaceful and close-knit. As a staff, we do like go out to eat and have a good time together as well,” said Morris.
Although the bookstore is closing, Harper is excited to get more people to buy books due to his end of the year book deals. In the last two months, one of his goals was to get books to people and all the books out of the store. The majority of the profit from the closing sales will go into paying off the bookstore.
(Above: A sign leading to Robert Harper books.)
“I have about one hundred thousand in debt from the bookstore from trying to open the bookstore, so I am going to have to continue my online business, so I can pay off the debt. We’ve also looked at other potential spaces, but we want to regroup and figure out a business plan to get proper financing before we try it again. I think I did my financing on a shoe string, and so much of it on credit cards that it was difficult to make the payments every month and that was a hold back in developing the business,” said Harper.
It is evident that Robert Harper Books is not the only bookstore that is declining. Many small libraries and bookstores are closing due to lack of interest. Also, the prices on books are declining due to the massive amount of unwanted books. “Hopefully bookstores will come back. Hopefully the microwaveable generation would read more to keep these establishments open,” said Morris.
“I think that younger people are not reading as much in book format. They are reading online more. The older people who are retiring and downsizing their homes are getting rid of so many books so there is a glut of books. The prices of books have really been driven down by everybody being able to sell on Amazon and EBay and the other online booksellers,” stated Harper.
Even though the bookstore is scheduled to close, Harper is going to try one last effort to save it. On December 6, he is holding a forum at the bookstore to get people from the community together to brainstorm ideas about how to relaunch the bookstore and start a kickstarter campaign. He is depending greatly on community support.