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My Dead Aunt’s Books remains a Hyattsville Arts District staple after five years

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Posted on: May 2, 2024

By JESS DANINHIRSCH

What comes to mind when you hear of a business with the word “dead” in its title? Some may find it amusing, some may be offended. It might even make some people nervous.

Bob Harper, owner of My Dead Aunt’s Books, has seen all sorts of reactions to the name of his independent secondhand bookstore. But one thing remains the same: The well-used bookshop is alive and kicking. 

The store is named for Harper’s wife’s aunt, Gingie, who spent her life traveling the globe and collecting books, according to the store’s website. Harper said Gingie and her husband, Freddie, traveled to Ireland nearly every summer and brought back books each time. They also frequented Cape May, N.J., where they would often pass through used bookstores. Mystery and horror were their favorite genres to collect.

When Aunt Gingie passed away, she left her collection of around 300 to 400 books to Harper’s wife, Sarah, who is not involved in the business, and to Sarah’s twin brother. 

“They were the aunt and uncle that had no children, so my wife was sort of their [child]. We hung out with them quite often,” Harper explained in an interview. “The picture on the logo is actually a picture of Aunt Gingie from when she was young, hanging on the back of a boxcar in Baltimore.”

Harper said he is keeping Aunt Gingie’s memory alive by bringing old books back from the dead. 

The whole business started online. Tasked with pricing Aunt Gingie’s books, Harper began by searching databases from other vendors to see the prices for which they sold similar titles.

“After I found some of those vendors, some of them tried to convince me that I should try to sell them myself rather than sell them to them,” Harper said. He decided to open his own online business through AbeBooks, an online marketplace for booksellers. When the books started to outgrow his house, Harper moved them to a brick-and-mortar store, called Robert Harper Books, in Riverdale Park, in March 2016.

Since relocating to Hyattsville and opening My Dead Aunt’s Books in November 2018, Harper said that he has had over 150,000 books between Aunt Gingie’s collection and the books sold to him to resell. He has already sold 100,000 of those. Currently, he has about 50,000 left for sale, and between 20,000 and 30,000 left to enter into the database.

Harper archives the books that are not on the store’s shelves in a warehouse along the Rhode Island Avenue Trolley Trail, about a block away from the main store. He hopes to one day open the warehouse as a storefront itself so customers can shop there, as well.

For now, however, there’s the colorful brick facade across from Franklin’s Restaurant at 5132 Baltimore Avenue. For five years, My Dead Aunt’s Books has been situated in the SoHy Arts Building, which houses numerous other businesses, including a tattoo shop and a recording studio. 

My Dead Aunt’s Books shares the first floor with Suffragette City Vintage and Cheeky Vintage, two secondhand clothing and commodities stores. Customers can shop for books, records, clothing, jewelry, and even home decor all in one stop.

Harper said he believes that this cohesive co-op setup helps all three of their businesses by allowing them to stay open longer, since only one person needs to man the cash register at a time. 

Holli Mintzer, owner of Suffragette City Vintage, agreed with Harper, saying the job would be much harder if the owners did not share the space. “​​I think most people who try to hold down a brick-and-mortar [store] by themselves will find, ‘Oh, wait, either I’m here or we’re closed.’ Those are the only options,” Mintzer said in an interview. “And that’s a really, really good way to burn out.”

The building that houses My Dead Aunt’s Books used to be a department store, and was later used as office space for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)

In the early 2000s, while working at the University of Maryland (UMD), Harper was on the organizing committee for AFSCME, which advocates for civil service workers’ rights. Harper said he would come to the building to help campus workers, both professional and nonprofessional, get representation and organize. According to an article from The Diamondback, a student-run campus newspaper at UMD, state and university workers gained collective bargaining rights in the 1990s and 2000s, which is around the time Harper worked with the federation.

This spirit of activism is also intertwined with the other businesses in the shared storefront.

Mintzer explained the name Suffragette City Vintage honors the David Bowie song — and

a unique bit of local history. In the early 1910s, around the time of the women’s suffrage movement, Hyattsville saw one of the largest suffragette rallies that had occurred up until that point, according to Mintzer.

“Women had been traveling all over the country collecting signatures for petitions; they had a rally here, and then convoyed into D.C. to present their petitions to Congress,” Mintzer said.

Nearly every shelf in the store is a nod to history, as nearly everything in all three businesses’ collections is secondhand. 

Helping to keep local independent bookstores from dying out, My Dead Aunt’s Books remains steadfast on Baltimore Avenue, along with the businesses with which it shares a space. They all work together cohesively to bring more art and culture, as well as activism and an awareness of history, into Hyattsville.

“It’s a synergy,” Harper said.


Jess Daninhirsch is an undergraduate journalism major at the University of Maryland.

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