Originally published in Her Campus American’s print magazine Collegiette, Issue 007.
When Loyalty Bookstore opened its doors for the first time in 2019, no one imagined it closing its doors in less than a year.
Founded by queer, Black bookseller Hannah Oliver Depp, Loyalty Bookstore set out to line their shelves with diverse literature written by and representing LGBT+ and communities of color. The first store in Petworth, Washington opened on Valentine’s Day in 2019. In October of the same year, Depp then opened a second store in Silver Spring, MD.
Gene Taft, the general manager of the both stores, helped Dep pack up the Silver Spring location in March 2020 when the pandemic hit.
“We had just opened this location,” Taft said, “and we’d barely got a toehold in the community. And I just thought ‘I was proud of what we’d done in the few months that we had it open. But I will not be surprised if this doesn’t open again.’”
A record-breaking 200,000 businesses were forced to permanently close in 2020 during the pandemic, according to a Federal Reserve study. Taft’s fear of not returning was reasonable. However, to his surprise, Loyalty not only survived but saw an increase in sales during the pandemic. Employees say it was the need for community and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement that propelled the store’s mission forward.
“A lot of people look to the store as a pioneer in mission driven bookstores,” Loyalty bookseller Malik Thompson, 26, said. “That was very apparent during the pandemic when we were getting so much attention as both a Black-owned bookstore and a bookstore that is intentionally trying to carve out space for marginalized voices in literature.”
Store employees attribute the success of Loyalty to the rising sense of community that came from the pandemic and how neighbors began to shop locally rather than turn to large corporations like Amazon. The store also gained national recognition as the Black Lives matter movement gained momentum following the murder of George Floyd.
In response to the surge in demand for anti-racist literature and books by Black authors, Loyalty hired Christine Bollow, 40, as programs and marketing manager in July 2020.
Loyalty’s daily online book sales increased tenfold after Floyd’s murder, Bollow said. And to further increase the store’s visibility, Bollow was hired to boost virtual events and promote books.
“Being able to promote books by authors of color, queer authors—we wanted to make sure their books didn’t get overlooked during the pandemic. And then also just to create that connection with our community since we couldn’t all meet in person,” Bollows said.
Loyalty gained national recognition in the last two years through the support of well-established authors.
Queer author Kristen Arnett praised Loyalty on Oprah Daily, saying, “Their staff is supremely knowledgeable, the book selection is next level and extremely gay, and they work so tirelessly to bring their community together. I drink coffee out of my Loyalty Bookstore coffee mug every morning!” Comedian and author Nicole Byer also acknowledged Loyalty on the Conan Show when promoting not only her own book, but other Black-owned bookstores as well, in June 2020.
National exposure increased Loyalty’s sales during the height of the pandemic. Loyalty shipped to nearly all 50 states, including Alaska, after promotions from prominent Black and queer authors, Taft said.
“Being Black and queer-owned, we got onto a bunch of lists and social media,” Taft said. “So there was promoting for us and other stores saying, ‘Shop local, shop Black, shop queer.’ And people did.”
Though consistently in business and taking online orders, customers were not able to re-enter either Loyalty location until early 2021.
The physical stores reopened for customers in stages, starting with only a pick-up spot for online orders. Then, the store set up a register by the entrance so customers could window shop and purchase their books without stepping inside.
Customers could only access a quarter of each store when it first reopened for in-person shopping. A few months later, both Loyalty locations expanded so half of each store was in use, and continued reopening sections slowly until both stores were back in full use.
The Silver Spring location uses approximately three-quarters of the store for in-person shopping and reserves the back for mail orders. The Petworth location uses the whole space, but shares a small portion of it with Willow, a local Washington clothing store.
“Pun intended, I do think that there’s a lot of loyalty among our customers, because they know that we practice what we preach,” Bollow said.