| Don’t Write Alone
Columns Bookseller Spotlight: Hannah Oliver Depp of Loyalty Bookstores
Depp has built Loyalty into a highly regarded brand, one that honors her vision of an independent bookstore committed to social justice.
This is the first installment of “ Bookseller Spotlight,” a series of features by Steve Haruch on the business of bookselling.
Booksellers are an odd lot. The profession requires both the introversion necessary to sit for hours reading in solitude and the extroversion needed to put a book in a stranger’s hand—often after administering an impromptu field test of their reading habits—and say, “Trust me; this is the book you need.” Similar to the way reading is simultaneously an escape from the world and a path deeper into it, bookselling is at once gnomic and performative, a mix of studious attention and improvised fortune-telling.
Their habitats are independent bookstores, akin to the small nightclubs that musicians sometimes play on their way to bigger things. They’re usually staffed by obsessives who devour everything they can get their hands on, in the hopes of turning even one other person on to something they loved and that left them changed.
Booksellers “show you a way forward towards more of yourself, a way you might not have known existed for you—but is still entirely your own,” poet and novelist Ocean Vuong has said , describing the role’s effect on readers. They are the “mapmaker[s] of possibility.”
For Hannah Oliver Depp, owner of Loyalty Bookstores, her first job at an independent bookstore felt like a kind of homecoming. She had worked as a bookseller before, but this felt different. Nor was it just any store—it was Politics and Prose, one of the nation’s most revered indies and one that Depp knew well. When she was a kid, she often stayed with an aunt who lived nearby and she grew up frequenting its shelves. Upon entering the store as an employee, she remembers thinking, All the parts of me now finally have a place .
In some ways, the job was harder to get than she’d expected. At the time she applied, Depp was a graduate student working on a thesis about the uses of medieval literature in modern writing—not exactly the most down-to-earth path of study—and she wondered if her esoteric academic background marked her as a less-than-ideal candidate. “There’s, like, a mythology of bookstores as a place where you sit around talking about Proust,” she says with a laugh, drawing out the vowels in Proust for maximum effect. “That has nothing to do with the amount of sweat that goes into being a bookseller.” Though Depp understood this distinction, she worried that her potential employers would see her academic background and view her as an effete pseudo-intellectual unwilling to get her hands dirty.
When Depp didn’t hear back about her application, she finally called the store to plead her case. “I’ve been working retail since I was fourteen,” she told them. “Just because I have a master’s in literature and am working on my PhD does not mean that I think that this job is sitting around talking and philosophizing.” The call convinced them.
Almost immediately after Depp was hired, things just clicked. “My theater skills, my people skills, my community-outreach skills, my readership—it all suddenly goes together,” Depp remembers thinking. In other words, as she puts it now: “I found my people.” But although Depp loved her job and was surrounded by like-minded coworkers, she developed the persistent feeling that something felt off .
When Depp looked around, she didn’t see many fellow Black booksellers or other people of color.
For one thing, there was the attitude of some customers. Working in the wealthy community that’s home to Politics and Prose, Depp was regularly discriminated against. She’s quick to point out that not everyone made her feel uncomfortable, and she did have support. “I had great managers. I had a lot of people nurturing my career,” Depp says. “But it was also this kind of semiconstant cognitive dissonance.” Even though she had visited the neighborhood regularly as a child, she’d grown up poor in another part of the city. And when Depp looked around, she didn’t see many fellow Black booksellers or other people of color.
“It wasn’t my DC, you know?” she says. “It was the DC of the affluent.”
While their community-building work is a big reason independent bookstores endure, reading can be a lonely experience. As Depp was learning, for people of color, working in a bookstore can sometimes be as well. Despite feeling that she’d found her people, in another sense, her people hadn’t found her.
On January 29, 2017, the American Booksellers Association gathered in Minneapolis for its annual Winter Institute. One of the biggest industry events of the year, the Institute brings together publishers, bookstore owners and employees, authors, agents, publicists, and all manner of publishing-adjacent vendors. Just four days earlier, then president Donald Trump had signed two executive orders stripping federal funds from so-called “sanctuary cities,” calling for the construction of a wall along the southern border and stepping up immigration detention.
“There were people in the room who represented bookstores that were in border towns,” Depp remembers. “There were people who were in that room that were in charge of what the next ten years of publishing were going to look like.” By that time, Depp had left Politics and Prose and was working as the operations director at WORD Bookstores in Jersey City and Brooklyn. She took the stage alongside fellow bookseller Angela Maria Spring, also a P&P alumna, during the conference’s town hall meeting. After years of advocating for a greater commitment to diversity in the bookselling world and having their efforts met mostly with indifference, Depp and Spring were at a breaking point.
To the assembled powers, the Trump administration was largely viewed as a terrible development, but the urgency and fear Depp was feeling—and knew her peers also felt—was not apparent among the old guard gathered in the audience. She and Spring saw the faces of people they knew and in some cases had worked for, whom they knew to be good-hearted; they also knew that, in terms of taking tangible action toward a more diverse industry, nothing had really changed.
“I think that most of them thought they were doing a pretty good job,” she says, in spite of the overwhelmingly white demographics of both the Institute and the industry at large. “And there was really no gentle way or, honestly, nonemotional way to tell them that wasn’t true.”
So Depp and Spring stepped up to the microphone, in front of some of the most powerful people in the publishing and bookselling worlds, and read from prepared remarks. Among them: “Donald Trump rose to power on the back of white and male privilege. And we, the entire book industry, are owned, operated, and run by a privileged few. It is vital,” they continued, “to not make the mistake of thinking simply because you sell books by people of color that you have created a wholly safe space for people of color.”
When booksellers are the only people of color on staff, they can sometimes be made to feel like they represent “diversity”—that it is their function to speak for their race and show interest in those matters , but not too much interest. At work, they might be asked to shelve books that advocate for racist and other discriminatory policies, but pointing this out to management might elicit defensiveness, or a kind of “All Books Matter” attitude that assumes a false neutrality as its baseline. Booksellers of color have been discouraged from prominently displaying books by authors from underrepresented backgrounds because such writers have been “ heard from enough ,” or they’ve asked to soften the language of displays calling for social justice.
“We’ve worked for and with people like you for years, and we know you would never intentionally further the status quo,” Spring said. “But . . . we need far more people of color and [of] LGBTQ identity owning and working in bookstores.”
It was a call for a more inclusive industry, but it was also a call for better treatment of the marginalized people who were already working in it—people who would now be working in public-facing jobs under perhaps the most openly white-supremacist administration in a hundred years. Depp says that she and Spring were trying “to make people understand that you can’t employ someone without employing their whole personhood—and that asking that of people was breaking us.”
Some people were ready to listen. A little less than two weeks later, the ABA announced its intention to “convene a bookseller task force on the subject of diversity as well as to expand and make more inclusive the Booksellers Advisory Council.” That task force would later become the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee (DEI) and count Depp among its members.
Still, Depp says, despite “a lot of tears and a lot of guilt,” nothing she said that day were things she hadn’t already said, both in private and on other occasions. And this moment, while meaningful, was just that—a moment. Lasting change would be neither quick nor easy. And while identifying the problem is a start, being asked to solve the problem by naming it over and over again can become a problem of its own. “I spent the next three years giving the same diversity-and-inclusion talk,” Depp says with audible exasperation. While she understood the need to meet people where they are, it felt like nothing was really happening.
The previous day of the conference, Roxane Gay had delivered a breakfast keynote address in which she expressed a similar sentiment. “I am so very tired of talking about diversity,” Gay said, citing the myriad ways that the publishing industry prefers symbolism over action. But the truth was too glaring not to point out: “I mean, look at this room,” she said, “where I can literally count the number of people of color among some seven hundred booksellers.”
In 2020, the ABA conducted its first demographic survey of independent bookstore workers and owners, but that information is only used internally. (Owners could opt in to a list of “diverse-owned” member stores .) With no public data, there is no centralized way of tracking what effect, if any, DEI efforts have had across the industry. But even if it’s not all public-facing, and even if progress is slow—as recent controversies illustrate all too clearly—the ABA is making an effort.
As time wore on, Depp felt mired in the role of professor for a class she didn’t really want to teach—much less the 101 version. Like Gay, she could feel herself rolling the same stone endlessly up the mountainside, everyone applauding or crying but ultimately doing nothing. Eventually, Depp concluded that the best way to make a difference was to gain more influence. In order to do that, “You pretty much needed to be the head buyer at an extremely well-regarded legacy bookstore, or you needed to be an owner.”
Head-buyer jobs do not open up often, particularly at the Politics and Proses of the world. Moreover, the scant racialized people on staff at all are seldom in line for them. Depp found herself confronting another seeming contradiction head-on: It would likely be easier for her to start her own bookstore than ascend to a position of power inside one.
Depp had always heard $250,000 bandied about as the amount required to start your own store. The actual number, she says, is more like sixty thousand dollars. “Which was not something that was sitting in my back pocket as someone who paid their way through school, had a mountain of student debt, and was working on a bookseller salary in an expensive city.” She was going to have to figure it out.
It would likely be easier to start her own bookstore than ascend to a position of power inside one.
By then, she’d worked in bookselling for a decade and attended every advanced education event she could. She took business classes and tapped her networks. “I called in every favor I had and said, ‘Please vouch for me so I can get an account with your publisher,’ or, ‘Please be my sales rep even though I’m not going to bring you a lot of money at first. I promise we’re building something here.’” She estimates that she drew up nine different business plans, which she in turn tested at various seminars. If nothing else, she was prepared.
Eventually, an opportunity presented itself. The owners of Upshur Street Books in DC were looking to sell. Depp entered into a work-to-own relationship with them. She started by taking over basic store administration and some orders, retrained part of the team, and then started a pop-up with them under her planned name: Loyalty. The financial success of the pop-up gave her a few thousand dollars she was able to use to grow and sustain momentum.
Then the team at New York City’s Greenlight Bookstore shared their community-lending model. Depp started seeing donations from people who had loved Upshur Street Books. Support also started coming in from Black, Latinx, and queer people who weren’t previously sure that the store would welcome them, because Upshur was in a gentrifying area. None of the individual contributions were huge, but together, they were enough. Next Depp painted the store, remade the signage, reupholstered chairs, and painted bookcases that she hauled out of the trash. “That’s the theater degree right there,” she says with a laugh, “the ability to refurbish on a deep lack of sleep.”
The result, Loyalty Bookstores, now has locations in DC and Silver Spring, Maryland. And while it has been mistakenly referred to as DC’s first (or only) Black bookstore, Depp is quick to point to MahoganyBooks, founded in 2007, and Sankofa, a bookstore and café that has operated since 1998 and was a favorite haunt of Depp’s growing up.
“Because I’m light skinned, because my intonation sounds typically white, people are very comfortable saying, ‘Look, she did great . . . this is our token Black person,’” Depp says. “And so it is really on me, because of that access to privilege, to constantly remind people that I am not nearly the first, and that I am following in the footsteps of people who have been incredibly generous and supportive of me.”
Since opening the doors in 2019, Depp has built Loyalty into a highly regarded brand, one that continues to pursue her vision of a better kind of bookstore. In addition to community-building efforts like an anti-racist book club, Loyalty has hosted events with prominent Black authors like Angie Thomas, Hanif Abdurraqib, Kiese Laymon, Akwaeke Emezi, and Deesha Philyaw, as well as supported the work of Elissa Washuta, Patricia Engel, Ocean Vuong, and Kazim Ali, among many others.
Loyalty’s social justice ethos is wide-ranging and inclusive. In May, after the horrific shooting in Atlanta, the store hosted a fundraiser for AAPI organizations that included readings by Min Jin Lee, T Kira Madden, Kat Chow, Mira Jacob, Clint Smith, and Meredith Talusan. For Depp, allyship is more than symbolic: the store does not stock books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on account of her anti-trans rhetoric.
Just as there is no one way to be an independent bookstore, there’s no one way to be a Black-owned bookstore either. Whereas many Black bookstores like Sankofa have operated largely outside of mainstream publishing—a position Depp admires—she sees Loyalty as having a slightly different mission.
“I was trained in traditional affluent publishing even if I didn’t have access to that power, right?” Depp says. She sees part of Loyalty’s overall goal as “be[ing] a voice within that system.” That means hewing to the usual distribution channels while also advocating for those channels to be more open and inclusive. For Depp, the continued success of Loyalty can only strengthen the argument that not only does an audience exist for the kinds of books she wants to see published, but that that audience is a vibrant, flourishing community.
For her efforts, Depp has earned a faithful customer base that has only grown in geographical reach. As a bright spot in a terrifying year of a pandemic and racial violence, she also received the 2021 Women’s National Book Association Award. In their announcement, the WNBA praised Depp for “her meritorious work in amplifying the efforts of social justice movements, particularly Black Lives Matter, while using her bookstores to create community spaces.” The recognition followed her winning the first BIPOC Bookseller Award from the ABA in 2020.
“I generally stay away from the word diversity now because it’s been watered down to be almost meaningless,” Depp says with palpable disappointment. “But my original idea was to represent all the various forms of diversity within books, whether that be disability, visible or otherwise, all beautiful forms of queerness in the alphabet, the immigrant story, the Black American story—I just wanted to see all those voices.”
In just a few years since making the jump from employee to owner, she has been a tireless advocate for the stories and storytellers that matter to her. In other words, she has found her people.