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International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Lantern Bookshop: A Beacon of Light Amid the Pandemic

The Lantern Bookshop, located at 3241 P St in Georgetown. The Lantern is completely volunteer-run with its proceeds supporting women’s education at Bryn Mawr College (BMC). (Abigail Bown/International Dateline)

The door swings open, bells jangling. A young volunteer staffing the front desk greets a customer with a warm smile, directing them to put on some hand sanitizer before exploring the shop.

The Lantern Bookshop is a used and rare bookstore tucked away in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. The shop is completely volunteer-run and all of its proceeds fund student internships at Bryn Mawr College (BMC), a women’s college in Pennsylvania.

Working at the shop this summer, I learned that each of the volunteers plays a different, integral role in keeping The Lantern up and running.

Hannah Shiblaq, a senior at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, is a regular volunteer at the shop. During her shifts, she mostly shelves books and rings customers up at the front desk.

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Shiblaq cites her passion for used books as a primary motivator for working at The Lantern. “They’ve been loved before by somebody I’ve never met… As much as I love Barnes & Noble, secondhand books have a bit of a story to them. Like there’s a copy of the “Percy Jackson” books that a little girl wrote her name in. You can’t find that with brand new books,” she said.

Susan Messina is a senior director at the Jewish Council for the Aging and a member of the BMC class of 1986. She spends her weekends volunteering at the shop, where she mainly enjoys sorting through donated books. 

Messina describes combing through the donations as “opening up a treasure box… You don’t know what’s going to be inside.”

One unique aspect of the bookshop is that there’s no online catalogue or inventory of the books on sale. “If someone walks in and says, ‘Do you have [this book]?’ the best we can do is say, ‘Well, go check these two or three places.’ You never know when someone’s going to find some hidden gem,” Messina said.

Caroline Willis is a retired rare book and manuscript appraiser and the current Vice President of The Lantern’s Board of Directors. She graduated from BMC in the class of 1966. Since she started working at the shop in 1984, Willis’ job has been to research and price the especially valuable books. 

Willis explains “as much as I love books and read all of the time, it turns out that a book is also an object. And [in appraising,] you address the book as a thing, not just as a container of interesting content.”

Although she retired in December of 2019, she continues to volunteer regularly at the shop. “I just don’t want to give up doing it. It still brings me pleasure and education. And the other people in the store and I have always found friendship, whether or not we knew each other to begin with [from BMC],” Willis said. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit D.C. in March 2020, The Lantern shut down and didn’t reopen until May 2021.

According to Messina, initially, the shop was only supposed to be closed for a few months. But as time passed, it became evident that “with [their] older population of volunteers, there was no way [they] could reopen until there was a vaccine.”

Susan Flinn is a public health consultant, the President of The Lantern’s Board of Directors, and a member of the BMC class of 1986. She organizes volunteer schedules and leads board meetings.

Once Flinn realized that the shop would be closed for an extended period of time, she collected all the money in the cash register to bring home. 

She also pulled together the rarest and most expensive books in the shop. These are the only ones listed online via AbeBooks, a website connecting independent used book sellers to buyers. While the physical store was closed, five rare books with a total value of $450 were purchased through AbeBooks, according to Flinn. 

Despite the lack of sales during the pandemic, since the store’s reopening in May, sales have increased from pre-COVID levels. 

In July 2021, the shop’s revenue was $5,900. By contrast, the average revenue in July of 2017, 2018, and 2019 was $3,500, according to Flinn. Willis attributes this nearly 70% increase in sales to “pent-up demand” caused by the shop’s 14 month closure.

The shop asks that all customers wear masks and use hand sanitizer before touching the books. Shiblaq has never seen a customer refuse to follow these rules. “There is just a recognition that we are all volunteers in here, and a lot of us are elderly women. So if you don’t put on a mask, what does that say about you?” she said.

In fact, the only issue brought on by COVID is an excess of books. Willis describes that while the shop was closed, there was a “flood” of donations, and since few purchases were made during that time, the shop had trouble storing all of the new books. She hopes that the steady influx of customers will alleviate this issue.

Although COVID might not have posed financial problems for the shop, The Lantern has struggled with one particular issue for decades: recruiting volunteers. 

According to Willis, when she started volunteering in the 1980s, there was an abundance of volunteers running the store seven days a week. But over time, fewer and fewer volunteers have come to work, and consequently, the store is now only open four days a week.

Willis believes this lack of volunteers is due to more women entering the workforce. “[In the 1980s,] a lot of women did not work… Many careers were not open to women. You can always teach school and be a secretary and be a nurse, the pink collar jobs, but many women had children and they stayed home. They found out that [staying home] could be boring, so then they would volunteer at the store. But now they’re at the office,” she said.

“This is not a complaint. This is just a fact,” Willis said. “But it does cut down on the number of women that are free to work for free.”

By Maia Nehme

If you’re interested in volunteering at The Lantern, you can contact Susan Flinn at [email protected].

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