The upstairs of Capitol Hill Books in Southeast D.C.
It all started with an email.
"If I give you guys $100 can you send me a mystery bag of books?" a customer wrote to Capitol Hill Books, a popular and locally loved neighborhood used bookstore.
Kyle Burk, one of the store's owners, said the requester gave broad parameters for what she was looking for and the store took it from there.
Since then, Burk says, Capitol Hill Books has had more than 50 people write in with the same request (a popular tweet about the new offer likely hasn't hurt) and staff are now fulfilling mystery book orders for $25, $50, $100 and price points greater than $100. All customers have to do is send the store an email with their request and price point, an idea of the kinds of books and authors they like, and staff will make their picks and send a PayPal invoice.
"It's important to us at a time when we're closed to the general public and allowing individuals in by appointment only," Burk adds. The store delighted local patrons last week when it announced it would keep its doors open, instead adjusting its operations in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Capitol Hill Books, known for its narrow aisles and heaping stacks of paperbacks, decided it wasn't safe for customers or staff to operate business as usual. Since Monday, staff have been accepting one-hour bookings via email for no more than four customers at a time to allow patrons to browse the shelves for an hour in an uncrowded store, free of cost.
"I think people are happy to have something where they can take a break from their quarantine and at the same time feel assured that they're being safe maintaining social distance," Burk says. The store, he added, is booked through next week.
Officials have been taking steps to limit the spread of coronavirus in the region, placing ever-tighter restrictions on events and businesses and ordering residents to practice "social distancing" by staying six feet apart from one another. Those limitations have hit local businesses particularly hard, prompting sweeping layoffs in the region.
"It's been stressful and we've had to think on our feet and adapt. Everything changes every day," Burk says. "Every morning we wake up knowing that we're going to have to walk and chew gum at the same time."
The store, which has five full-time employees (including at its rare book warehouse in Hyattsville), has so far avoided any layoffs. For now, Capitol Hill Books maintains two employees working on site, armed with hand sanitizer, gloves and an array of suggestions for those looking for a reprieve from being cooped up in their homes.
"We're really grateful for everyone's support," Burk says. "People that reach out are making a huge difference right now."