The full story on Kramerbooks

After 28 years of independent bookselling, there's more to the story than longevity

One might describe Kramerbooks as a Washington institution, the perfect combination of a bookstore and restaurant, or an excellent place to find books that appeal to one's intellect. But for Pete Conner, a manager of the store's Afterwords Caf?, it's a bit simpler than that.

"This place is strange," he says. "It's really strange."

That's one word to describe the 28-year-old Dupont Circle landmark, where one can find all manner of books, ranging from "Everybody Poops" to "The 9/11 Commission Report," and then have a banana split with friends. The bookstore's two relatively small rooms are often filled with professionals in suits, tourists and college students. Conner says George Stephanopoulos, an anchor on the ABC show "This Week," was a regular customer when he used to live nearby.

AU senior and economics major Andreas Karelas was a waiter at the Afterwords Caf? for about a month in the Fall 2002 semester.

"There were so many different people there," he said. "It's in Dupont so it had an eclectic crowd of young and old - people who liked books and good food - and a fun environment. When I applied for a job there I had merely enjoyed stopping in the bookstore from time to time but had no idea of its popularity in the District."

Conner, 26, also describes the customers at Kramerbooks as eclectic, but different from when he started working in the restaurant 10 years ago.

"When I first started, the clientele was significantly gayer," he said. "The neighborhood has changed a whole lot. It's gone yuppie ... People aren't as much fun."

Apparently yuppies like books that make them feel smart. Specifically, general manager Mitch Brown says Kramerbooks customers like such topics as philosophy, world politics and international fiction - not the westerns and romances he says people go to book superstores for. And while it may look like all people do at the store is browse, Conner says plenty of them actually buy something. In recent years Kramerbooks was rated the nation's highest-grossing independent bookstore per square foot, he says.

Allyn Berosz, who lives near Chevy Chase Circle, says he stops by the store after his monthly haircut. He especially likes its selection of history and political affairs titles, which he describes as one of the area's best.

"I can always get something I haven't seen before," Berosz says. "I don't appreciate the cigarette smoke, and I come in here despite that."

April White, a Philadelphia resident who was visiting D.C. on a recent Saturday, agreed. While one can find almost any book imaginable online, White says she prefers shopping for books at a store.

Conner, an easygoing guy with a shaved head and an earring, says, "It's really strange to come in on Saturday at four in the morning and see people browsing books." That's one time when customers don't buy as much, he adds.

The Afterwords Caf?, where Conner works, is a moderately priced, full-service restaurant that not only predates the average Barnes & Noble caf? by about 20 years, but leaves it in the proverbial dust. Afterwords serves appetizers, desserts and full meals and has a bar with 32 kinds of vodka. Conner says that while the bookstore-restaurant combination draws in customers, it creates some difficulty. As one example he points to the fact that the restroom doors are locked.

"You're serving a $16 pasta dish and people have to have a token to use the bathroom," he says. "That's got to be embarrassing."

The restaurant has weekly specials that sometimes mock current events - a mockery that Conner says is equal-opportunity. During this year's Republican National Convention the specials included "deviled 'W' veal short ribs" and " 'swift boat harvested' Texan blackened swordfish." The menu also made fun of Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott after he remarked at the late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond's birthday party that a racially segregated United States might have fewer problems than it does now.

"We were serving a Trent Latte last year that was one glass of coffee and one glass of milk," Conner said. "Separate but equal parts."

Kramerbooks is open every day between 7:30 a.m. and 1 a.m. and 24 hours a day on the weekends. And things really get interesting at night.

"It's madness," Conner said. "After 3 a.m. everyone's not drunk. They're gone. Fights break out. You meet a lot of police officers."

He recalls the would-be purse snatcher he caught this summer and another instance of trying to keep people in the restaurant when a man in Dupont Circle had a gun. Another employee once saw a man try to hang himself from a nearby building.

He is more animated telling these stories than talking about Kramerbooks' brief foray into the national spotlight in 1998, at the height of the sex scandal surrounding former President Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

That spring, independent counsel Kenneth Starr subpoenaed records of books Lewinsky had purchased from the store as part of his case against Clinton. Starr also subpoenaed similar records from the Barnes & Noble in Georgetown, although late that spring a judge ruled that the Barnes & Noble records were not relevant to the case. Kramerbooks fought against its subpoena, and early in the summer Lewinsky agreed to give Starr the information herself, making the subpoena a moot point.

During the few months the store was in the media spotlight, employees were instructed not to talk to reporters. Although he recalls CNN being there, Conner says the incident "really wasn't that strange for me."

"It was great press," he says. "It was really cool, but then it was like, this really didn't turn into much of anything."

Overall he says his goal is to make his employees happy and the restaurant a good place to work. Karelas says that while his stint was short, he enjoyed it, and Conner says morale is key to good service and happy customers.

"Service is what makes or breaks it," he says. "Good food is great, but if it takes you hours to get it you're really not happy at that point"

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