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As Independent Bookstore Day nears, Vienna shop reflects on five years of building local literary community

Bards Alley bookstore in Vienna (file photo)

The next few months will be busy ones for Vienna’s local, independent bookshop.

First, there are Independent Bookstore Day celebrations to prepare for on April 30. Then, in July, Bards Alley will mark its fifth anniversary since opening its doors at 110 Church Street NW in 2017.

After nearly five years, owner Jen Morrow still gets a kick out of seeing how the community has embraced Bards by lining up for new releases, forming book clubs that meet at the store, or just hearing a parent read to their child.

Bards Alley becoming not just a store, but a place where the local community would come and talk about books is a dream come true for Morrow.

“I missed having a place to browse books, talk about books, and foster my love of reading. My hometown has an indie bookstore and when I moved to Northern Virginia, I would frequent Olsson’s Books & Records,” Morrow told FFXnow, referring to the D.C. chain that folded in 2008.

“When I started a family of my own, I realized there really wasn’t a place where I could give them the same experience,” she said. “So, I decided to pursue the path of opening Bards Alley.”

Before Bards Alley opened, the closest thing Vienna had to a bookstore was the Used Book Cellar in the basement of the Freeman Store & Museum.

Knowing the challenges facing brick-and-mortar stores in the age of Amazon and online retail, Morrow incorporated a hybrid cafe and wine bar into Bards Alley to serve as another source of revenue and encourage communal gathering.

As it turns out, the books side of the business has done just fine even without the cafe as a supplement. Bards Alley still sells some snacks and drinks, including wine, but the food service operations have ceased, a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like all other businesses, Bards has had to adapt to the realities of the pandemic to stay afloat. Morrow and her employees managed to come up with ways to bring books to their customers. It didn’t hurt that, when people retreated to their homes in the spring of 2020, they had more time to read books.

“I am most proud of our ability to partner with other local businesses. In particular, we offered bicycle delivery with Bikes@Vienna,” Morrow said. “We established a system for phone and email orders, and were available as a concierge of sorts. This showcased who we truly are, knowledgeable booksellers who are here to support the local community. As a result, we now have many new customers.”

While the past two years have brought challenges for the industry, booksellers of all sizes have not just survived, but in many cases, thrived. The chain Barnes & Noble has opened eight new locations across the country, including its first Woodbridge store in March.

Morrow sees this expansion of brick-and-mortar bookstores as an affirmation of the need for human connection, no matter how much technology has evolved.

“I believe that shopping at a brick and mortar store engages all of our senses, in one way or another,” she said. “The displays that are carefully curated, the conversations with a bookseller, the smell and feel of a book in one’s hands all provide an experience that can not be replicated online.”

Morrow plans to offer just such an experience on Independent Bookstore Day, when Bards Alley has invited “Finding Napoleon” author Margaret Rodenburg, children’s fantasy author Alyssa Colman, and other local writers to come and celebrate with the surrounding community.

There will also be free giveaways and merchandise available for customers.

“It’s a very big day for independent bookstores, so I encourage everyone to join in the celebration and visit their local indie on that day,” Morrow said.

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