On April 26, two days after Mayor Michael Hancock announced that Denver's stay-at-home order had been extended to May 8, almost two weeks beyond Governor Jared Polis's April 26 deadline, John Sturtz sounded the death knell for the place where he works: Capitol Hill Books, at 300 East Colfax Avenue.
“Since Mayor Hancock announced a further delay (with how many more to come?) we've decided it was the final nail in our coffin,” he warned in an email to Westword.
But later that day, store owner Holly Brooks changed her mind...for now.
“As the day wore on, she started thinking about ways to save it,” Sturtz explains. “Books are Holly's passion, and her emotional bond to the store, and especially the customers, is tenacious.”
Brooks, who started working at Capitol Hill Books nineteen years ago, when it was already a two-decade-old mainstay, never intended to own the shop. But fifteen years ago, the owner at the time, who knew that Brooks had saved a nest egg for retirement, pressured her into buying the place. “I didn’t want to buy the store,” Brooks recalls. “I still have the scars on my arm where the previous owner twisted my arm to make me buy the store. It was so unfair. I just wanted to work here...I still want to work here.”
Over the years, she’s enjoyed sharing book recommendations with customers, chatting with them about their favorite authors and introducing them to surprise finds. The shop specializes in Buddhism, philosophy and metaphysics, but also boasts plenty of holistic health resources, fiction, cookbooks, and even a handful of new editions of classics such as 1984 that Brooks says every bookstore needs in stock. All told, more than 32,000 books fill the three crowded rooms.
“The fun of it is talking to people and recommending things and having them recommend them to you and chatting about books,” she says.
While the shop has sold online through Amazon for about two decades, most of its business continues to come from tourists and longtime shoppers. "This bookstore really means something to people after 39 years," Brooks says. "I’ve had parents bring in their children and tell them, 'My mother brought me to this bookstore when I was a little kid.'"
That history made Brooks want to secure the future of Capitol Hill Books during the pandemic. "A few days before the total lockdown, we had instituted on our website 'solo shopping',” she explains. “People were really interested in that. They signed up on the website or by phone. We let them in one at a time and they got to browse.”
But then Hancock and Polis issued stay-at-home orders that shuttered all but essential businesses. And unlike booze and weed, books were deemed non-essential, she notes.
The stay-at-home order meant that all of the company’s business has shifted onto Amazon, which brings the store about $100 on a good day.
Brooks used her $1,200 government check to pay for April rent and is floundering about how to pay for May. As soon as she could, she applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but Chase, her bank, ran out of money before her request was considered.
“They sent me an email, sweet as anything, saying there’s so many people in line, you might want to consider a different lending institution,” she remembers. “Isn’t that thoughtful? Really? You want me to take my business elsewhere because...'you don’t have a chance, lady.' That’s pretty harsh. I keep looking at my email, shaking my head.”
Unable to pay her employees, she had to lay them off. Then the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment supplemented unemployment checks with an additional $600 a week from the feds through July 31 — a boon to workers but a curse to tiny businesses that don't have capacity to pay that much. Her laid-off staffers are now making more while unemployed than they'd earned working at the shop. (A few donate their time doing data entry work to keep the store's Amazon sales going.)
Part of her would like to see the shop close, so she could take unemployment, too, Brooks says: “Do you know what I pay myself? Two hundred and ten dollars a week."
But her commitment to books and to the shop is too great to quit. "It really is a landmark or an icon, or whatever you want to call it," she says. "But I just hate to see it die."
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And if the store were to close for good, she would still need to host a going-out-of business sale to unload the 32,000-plus books in stock. "Where am I going to move them to?" she asks. "I’m not going to put them in dumpsters."
She's written government officials ranging from Polis and Hancock to members of Denver City Council, asking for permission to reopen to one customer at a time, a load she could handle by herself, all while employing safe distancing, that would also improve sales. "You get these emails: 'We’ll get back to you. Thank you for your email,'" she says. Then she hears nothing.
She's even weighed the risk of violating the stay-at-home order and selling books curbside, surreptitiously handing them out in paper bags to people driving by, like she's doing a drug deal. "I guess if I'm going to act like a drug dealer, I couldn’t have a better location," she jokes.
But resorting to sidewalk deals and sneaky sales would be a ridiculous outcome of a stay-at-home order that is on the brink of putting her out of business — especially when multinational corporations like Walmart and Target are still open.
"If you make them wear masks and make them wear gloves and hand out gloves at the door and keep it to a minimum," she asks, "how is that more dangerous than walking into a Walmart?"
Order from Capitol Hill Books at the bookstore's website.