Friday, February 15, 2013

Life Beyond Olsson's and Borders--A Day Wandering Around Bookstores in Washington, DC.

I've been going to Washington DC bookstores for thirty years now, ever since I attended my first ABA conference (now BEA) sometime in the early 1980s. In those days, I would head to Dupont Circle and visit Kramerbooks and a branch of Olssons. A lot has changed over the years, and with the loss of Olsson's and a number of Borders, I keep wondering if there will be more stores opening in the area, and in the District in particular, as the demographics have changed quite a bit in the last decade.

I passed by the Books a Million on the Circle, which seemed pretty similar, though they added a Joe Muggs coffee shop, well, at one point. You're not looking for me to tell you what's happening in chain stores in a blog like this, though if I see something particularly interesting, I'm sure to report on it. I stopped in the Hello Cupcake and looked around, one of three cupcake stores I visited on the trip, and it's only been two days so far. The problem is that now that we have Milwaukee Cupcake Company and Hello Cupcake, I have no reason to roam.

I haven't been to Kramerbooks on my last few visits, so it seemed worth it to stop by, as our hotel was not too far away and it gave me a sense of stability and continuity. If my customers visit a bookstore in DC without talking to me first, Kramerbooks is probably the one they'll pick. It's fun to browse while waiting for a table in the restaurant, and even if you don't eat there, any visitor is likely to eventually wind up in Dupont Circle. I am always impressed by the high traffic count and the piles and piles of the titles they sell well. It's the dream of any bookseller--an ideal location with lots of traffic.

Lots of the titles were the best of the new releases geared to indies, but I was impressed that several older titles apparently had legs enough for prominent placement. I asked Maggie to tell me about one book that they sold like crazy that I wouldn't expect. Her answer was Everyone Poops, which proves so popular that tourists pose with the book featured in their store window. There was a time that Everyone Poops sold in big numbers at some Schwartz locations, but in the last few years, it's been pushed off to the toilet training section. It's also timely for an indie to feature, as its owner has spoken out about discounting on Amazon, and actually restricts sales through that channel. And more than that, this tells me that a lot of visitors to our store probably haven't discovered the book, and maybe we should try it again on our impulse table. 

If a bibliophile is more educated about the DC market, he or she is likely to make a pilgrimage to Politics and Prose, a store that is often touted as one of the best bookstores in the country. Things have actually changed quite a bit since my last visit when Jason and I visited several years ago. They moved their checkout desk to a wall, and changed their old cash/wrap to an information station. The former info desk has become the new home of their Espresso Book Machine, which they call Opus. Like many stores working with print on demand, a lot of their focus is in becoming the vendor of choice for locally published books.

We started out with five of us making the pilgrimage, but I didn't really explain that the store isn't exactly in the tourist corridor, and the final visitors wound up being Kirk and my brother-in-law Gus. We had a great time browsing the sections and the new release tables and music and video. Gus and Kirk were particularly fascinated at the great selection of those two categories; I noted that as long as Exclusive Company is around, we'd prefer to keep our selection tight.

I love the new design of their Politics and Prose tee, which Bill told me is also being used on their tote. The artwork came from one of their booksellers. I asked Bill what he was excited about, and he told me that two of his favorite most recent books he read came from the same authors, Jess Walter. He loved both the novel Beautiful Ruins and the recently released story collection, We Live in Water. I was pleased to share that we were hosting Walter on Monday, May 6, at 7 pm, and their are direct flights on Air Tran, though by May that my convert to Southwest. I think he would have preferred that Walter add DC to one of his itineraries. 

After our visit, we walked over and had a very nice lunch at Terasol, a French cafe across the street. I was scheduled to participate in an oritentation talk about helping coordinate a bookseller breakout session on Dan Pink's To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others, at Kansas City's Winter Institute. I wound up going back to buy a copy at Politics and Prose afterwards. Kirk bought a baseball cap, suggesting that a Boswell cap might be a good idea for the future.

We passed another bookstore on our way home from dinner last night in Georgetown, but alas, it was too late to stop by. While several folks in our wedding party had their nails done, I headed over to Bridge Street Books for another lit fix. It's a two story store in a narrow storefront, and what a delightful find it was. It wasn't exactly the store I expected in a neighborhood like Georgetown. According to their website, they've been open for more than 30 years.

Instead it had a serious commitment to academic pursuits that is really hard to find in a store of that size in the last few years. Really terrific and tightly stocked sections on politics, international relations, philosophy, cultural studies, and lots and lots of history. Almost a complete case of film (I immediately thought I should drag Gus back as soon as possible), a women's studies section, the whole shebang. Managing a store like that seems like it's easy--bring in what you like or think is important, and just keep getting it, but you still have to make the hard decisions of what series is worth keeping complete and which ones have to be broken up. And unless you have boundless cash flow, something has to go back eventually. I did notice that there were very few books in quantity, but honestly, what looked like the complete BFI (British Film Insitute) library? That's amazing!

They had also gone big on the Akashic urban noir library. Keeping to my theme of the upcoming Winter Institute, I picked up Kansas City Noir, edited by Steve Paul, a writer and editor at the Kansas City Star, and yes, a former bookseller, which came out last fall. I asked my bookseller who she was reading, and she told me she was currently enjoying the poet Alice Notley, whose most recent collection is Culture of One. And yes, they also had a very good poetry section.

My biggest takeaway from my visit to Bridge Street Books? Imagine if every college supported a bookstore like this.


Donna said...

I LOVE Politics and Prose- can spend hours and $$$ in their children's section! It's magic!

Donna said...

I love Politics and Prose and can spend hours and $$$ in their children's section- it's magic!

Sam Jones said...

Thanks for the tour - DC is a great book town, though less great than it used to be. You nailed one of the unique things about Kramerbooks, I think -- the well-curated front tables. Also, lots of books on writing style and usage, which reminded me that it is a city where many people write for a living.

On the Circle, another great bookstore that you didn't mention is Second Story Books.

Bridge Street, which you did mention, is conveniently located on the way from Georgetown to the nearest Metro stop (Foggy Bottom) - picked up many a book there on they way home from lunch or dinner on M Street.

Of the long-gone bookstores of DC, I still miss Chapters and Calliope, but not Olsson's so much, where I bought more CDs than books ..