In a former sewing machine store, next to a restored art deco theater, Sacramento, Calif.’s Capital Books got its start in April 2019. Capital Books fills a niche in Sacramento’s historic downtown: Levinson’s Books, a landmark from 1929 to 1994, occupied the space on the other side of the Crest Theater. “This building has been a lot of things: an art gallery, a beauty supply store, a candy store,” said Ross Rojek, who owns Capital Books with his wife, Heidi Rojek.

The Rojeks met while working in Silicon Valley. Together for 14 years and married for seven, they started the Sacramento Book Review and developed apps prior to opening Capital Books. “I’ve always been in the book industry, at least tangentially,” said Ross, who operates GoLocalApps in addition to running the store.

Capital Books has three sales areas: a general interest bookstore on the street level and second floor; a reading nook on the second floor called the Flamingo Lounge, which has a “Miami Beach in the 1920s” vibe, Heidi said; and in the newly renovated basement, a science fiction, fantasy, and gaming area called Another Universe. “The staff who work in the basement have name tags that say ‘dungeon master,’ ” Heidi said. “They call it the nerd dungeon.”

Ross said, “We’re in a downtown environment a block from the state capitol, and that drives our walk-in traffic.” Proximity to the capitol means access to household names. “We had [Congressman] Adam Schiff in for the first event for the release of his book Midnight in Washington in October 2021, and we sold out within two days,” Ross said. Just before Christmas, California governor Gavin Newsom came in to promote his children’s book, Ben and Emma’s Big Hit, and Capital Books sold 200 copies.

For large ticketed events, Capital Books partners with the Crest Theater. On May 6, around 600 attendees flocked to the Crest to hear from former FBI task force officer Paul Holes, author of Unmasked: My Life Solving America’s Cold Cases and a member of the team that caught the Golden State Killer. Intimate gatherings, such as a May 7 reading by America’s Got Talent winner and spoken-word poet Brandon Leake, author of Unraveling, take place in the Flamingo Lounge.

Until recently, author appearances had been on pause. A year after Capital Books’ opening, the pandemic turned the nine-to-five business district into a ghost town. Even so, “it was the shutdown that made us what we are now,” Ross said. “Customers started calling, and they would drive by to pick up orders. We got a huge amount of media coverage because we were one of the only businesses that stayed open.” An electronic billboard company offered Capital free ad space on a short-term basis, and the Rojeks relied on Bookmanager’s point-of-sale system to handle orders. Ingram, in Roseburg, Ore., “was basically next-day ordering for us,” Ross said. “For us, the pandemic was useful for finding a passionate audience.”

Customers came for more than books when Heidi developed a new concept, Feast and Fiction, which allowed people to schedule pandemic-friendly date nights. “People got sick of reheating take-home food in the microwave,” she said. “I love to cook and dabble in baking. I thought, what if we gave [couples] the bookstore all to themselves after we closed, and I could make them something easy?”

Under the program, customers could reserve the candlelit Flamingo Lounge, dine on house-made food, and receive a 15% store discount. Heidi and a staffer took turns prepping and cooking, “and if I was making a soup from a particular cookbook, we’d have that cookbook available,” she said. Her handsells included Joanna Gaines’s first Magnolia Table volume (“There’s not a bad recipe in there”) and Toni Tipton-Martin’s Jubilee. “We’d leave them alone and hang out in the office. Our rules were that you had to know each other or be vaxxed, and we could accommodate six to eight guests.” Once word got around, Feast and Fiction expanded from two nights to five nights a week, “booked up 100% solid,” Heidi said.

The initiative let Heidi test-drive her idea for a fantasy-themed café, There and Back Again, which opened around the corner from Capital Books this February. “While Ross was renovating Another Universe, I was renovating the café,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of people carrying games they buy at the bookstore down to the café to play.” Capital Books’ signage directs customers to the location, and Heidi prepares recipes from fan-based cookbooks. “I’m trying to get brave enough to host a reservation-only dinner based on a book or game,” she said.

Heidi’s longer-term dream is a kitchen “where cookbook authors could come in and demonstrate,” she said, noting that “there are a lot of hardcore home cooks in Sacramento.” With Capital Books and There and Back Again off to strong starts, the Rojeks are advancing their vision for more exciting downtown Sacramento.