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Local Bookstores Offer ‘Mystery Bags’ of Quarantine Reading

Buyers can ask for a mix of their favorite genre or seek booksellers’ recommendations

Capitol Hill Books is one of several independent bookstores selling "mystery bags." (Photo By Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
smithsonianmag.com

With the majority of nonessential businesses closed due to COVID-19, book lovers can no longer walk through a local bookstore, scan the crowded shelves for an interesting title, and pick out a book—or four—to take home. But not all book browsing trips include a specific shopping list. Many times, the fun is in finding something new.

As independent bookstores pivot to online sales, some are continuing to surprise readers by offering “mystery bags” of books. For between roughly $15 and $100, depending on the store and size of the trove, buyers can request a mix of their favorite genre or titles chosen by the seller.

Capitol Hill Books in Washington, D.C. began offering the service in mid-March at a customer’s request.

“Favorite email of the day so far: ‘If I give you guys $100 can you send me a mystery bag of books?’” the bookstore tweeted on March 21. “Yes. Yes we can.”

By the next day, more than 50 people had contacted the store with similar orders, according to Mary Tyler March of WAMU. Prior to the mystery bag suggestion, Capitol Hill Books had essentially closed its doors, limiting opening hours to 60-minute slots in which four people at a time were allowed to wander the store’s narrow, book-lined aisles.

More recently, the shop has been sharing customers’ photos of their mystery book hauls. One patron’s six-book bag featured Wolf Hall, The Vineyard and Career of Evil; another customer’s stack of ten included Aristotle’s Politics and Ernest Hemingway’s The Nick Adams Stories.

“It’s been stressful and we’ve had to think on our feet and adapt. Everything changes every day,” Kyle Burk, one of Capitol Hill Books’ owners, told WAMU last month. “We’re really grateful for everyone’s support. People that reach out are making a huge difference right now.”

Capitol Hill Books' second floor holds its fiction collection. (Photo by Bill O'Leary / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Trident Booksellers and Café in Boulder, Colorado, began offering a similar service in late March, reports Micah Ling for Atlas Obscura. Trident is the oldest café on Boulder’s downtown Pearl Street, but without foot traffic from locals and University of Colorado students, its owners have had to pivot the business online. The store delivers local orders placed online by bike. These mystery bags include not just books, but a packet of coffee or tea.

By early April, the store had sold more than 300 bags, half of which were sent by mail to locations around the world. The store has run out of science fiction titles to share, and certain specific requests have become difficult to fill.

“Keeping up with demand is something we haven’t been used to,” Trident co-owner Andrew Hyde says to Atlas Obscura. “We ran out of delivery bags and coffee bags. Then we ran out of shipping envelopes three times.”

But, he adds, “It’s so much fun to pick great books for people. Lots of obscure things.”

Melinda Jones, owner of Second Read Books in Decatur, Alabama, also started offering mystery bags after reading about a D.C. bookstore’s success with the idea, reports Michael Wetzel for the Decatur Daily. Like Trident, Jones has had a mix of orders from local buyers and individuals from across or outside of the state.

“A $25 mystery bag, for example, the buyer will receive probably four or five books of their favorite genre,” Jones tells the Decatur Daily. “It’s working very well. Last week, we sold about 125 mystery bags.”

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