Used bookstores provide good reads, good deals for DC communities
Books live long, rich lives: People they touch, fashions they wear, places they go. Some journey to D.C. and flow between bookstores, homes, libraries, archives and people. Not all, however, are wanted.
The neglected, the orphaned and the relics often find relief on the shelves of the District's used bookstores. Here these wearied travelers, whether sloppily sprawled on the racks of Capitol Hill Books or ensconced in a glass case at Bartelby's, blend in while lending their own character to each shop's unique air.
At Lantern Books on cobblestone N Street, a block west of Wisconsin Avenue, a $2 copy of George Orwell's "1984" bears an embossment from the library of Richard W. Kidwell - a random person, but his mark is unique fodder for the imagination.
Each book has its own personality, but many are similarly inexpensive: The staff is all-volunteer and the books are all donated.
The store is part of a network of used bookstores run by Bryn Mawr College to finance scholarships. Sue Swisher, a genial Bryn Mawr alumna, volunteers at Lantern.
All types of books come into the store, but "we try to put up in the way of serious literature as much as we can," said Swisher.
A bearded man scans the titles. "Bookshops have gone to hell the last couple of years," he said. "People are driving them out of business because they can no longer afford the rent."
Val Morgan, the owner of Idle Time Books on 18th Street, elaborates: "Bookstore owners thought when the Internet got popular they'd just put all their books online and close their stores ... Now you get people sitting in their living rooms and they might have a $25 book and they sell it for $5 because what do they care? They don't have to live off the money."
But the Internet suffocates the romance of browsing. "How are you going to find something if you don't know it's there?" Morgan questions. Physical space has charm.
The intriguing titles on each step to the second floor support Morgan: "Faery Wicca," "African Bojo Echoes in Appalachia," "Monsters," "An Investigator's Guide to Magical Beings." The last book contains a rather practical section entitled "Dealing with Mermaids."
On the landing is a modest foreign language section. The upstairs has sports, journalism, armchairs, and uncorrected proofs for published works, one by Senator Orin Hatch.
At Idle Time Books, an inscribed copy of "Beloved" goes for $5.50, containing a note from "Mom and Dad" to their "beloved daughter Caroline" wishing her a "Merry Christmas 1996." Or pick up "Great Expectations" for the awkward price of 97 cents.
Morgan and the cashier Emily sit at the desk. They talk about the store and the neighborhood. "They named it [Adams-Morgan] after me," Morgan jokes. Both of the women are sharp and funny. Emily spins eloquent sentences. "She's got lots of verbal gold," Morgan smiles. "She's a writer." Reluctantly Emily says, "I've written for The City Paper and other stuff you probably haven't heard of."
D.C.'s used bookstores attract interesting staff. Brendan Wheeler, a weekend cashier at Capitol Hill Books on C Street, works as a foreign policy analyst for the Senate Appropriations Committee. He reflects the store's patronage. "It's a Saturday morning event for them," he says. "Journalists, politicians, activists, families."
Capitol Hill Books' disheveled organization reflects this hodgepodge of customers. A rack in the front contains the store's most popular sellers: theologian Thomas Merton, novelist C.S. Lewis, and gonzo journalist Dr. Hunter S. Thomason. In all sections, books rest upright, on their sides, diagonally, and on top of each other. A sign with a happy face asks, "Please keep this looking as neat as it looks now."
Despite the books' chaotic placement, they remain in their sections. The greeting at the door from the owner, Jim Toole, a retired two-star admiral, is concise: "Fiction upstairs; non-fiction downstairs."
The poetry section is in the kitchen. "Paradise Lost" stands on a rack in front of a freezer containing a frozen bottle of Cr?me de Cacao; an anthology of Chinese literature rests in the doorless cabinets. Keats, Shelly and Whitman nestle in front of the stove, and a stucco lamp in the sink props up a copy of "Maryland Poets."
The seemingly arbitrary m?lange reflects Toole's humor and style. For instance, foreign language publications are shelved in the bathroom. Toole feels this is appropriate since foreign language attainment in this country is, in his opinion, in the toilet. While in "el baÂ¤o" one can find, according to the signs, "French, French, Still More French." Other languages are also included.
The large mystery section has its own mystery. "William Kerr opened the store in 1990. He died in 1994," Wheeler explained. "He lived upstairs. He died in the mystery section. Some mornings I'll come in and whole shelves of books will be on the ground." What Wheeler does not mention is if the books were on the ground the night before.
With its orderliness and high ceiling, Riverby Books at 417 East Capitol St. strikes a pronounced contrast with Capitol Hill Books. Its symmetrically ascending rows of stained pinewood bookcases resemble an elegant stairway. Walking between them, one feels less confined.
The brick, wood and tea create an easy atmosphere. "We serve tea every afternoon," says Steve Cymrot, the store's owner. He describes his store as, "A neighborhood used bookstore to serve the community in store and online." Cymrot knows his customers. He recalls one Hill resident, a bibliophilic congressman, who masked the increase in his 8,000-volume library from his wife by dividing his payments between cash, check and credit card.
Other residents from the Hill may be interested in a $6 copy of Sun-Tzu's "Art of War," or perhaps Locke's "Two Treatises on Government" for $7.50. There are books for non-politicos too. Most fiction paperbacks including "The Great Gatsby," and "The Color Purple," cost about $2.50.
Bartleby's on M Street offers a glimpse into the evolution of D.C.'s neighborhoods. Old hand-colored Washington maps from 1870 tell some of the city's story.
"It's good genealogical information," co-owner Karen Griffin said. The maps show where various families lived. Another book, "Morrison's Guide to Washington," a 19th- century tour book, contains a delicate fold-out map and information about D.C.
Bartelby's specializes in Southern American history, but they have rare volumes of all kinds. A 1934 brochure touts Florida: "Florida: Land of Homes." Under glass they have a signed William Faulkner reader. The case against the front wall holds an illustrated first edition of "Puddin' Head Wilson," by Mark Twain.
Griffin's favorite is a three-volume anthology of the ornithologist Alex Wilson.
"Wilson was one of the early ornithologists. He predates Audubon. Wilson did the early leg work," she says, pointing to a colorful bird engraving.
Picking favorites is dangerous though. These books are travelers, only taking a rest. They will go out with a favorable wind or at the right season.
But, in the meantime, they live off imagination. The fantasies they create with their covers and titles alone is enough to keep them going, but for this they need a few friends to share their tales with.