Bookstores make me happy

I’ve been on winter break for the past month or so, during which time I’ve observed a few things about myself.

First, I tend not to be terribly constructive with my free time!

Second, I like bookstores.

Discounting the recently (and tragically) defunct Olsson’s Books & Music on 19th St., there are three bookstores within a 3 block radius of each other in Dupont Circle. Now say whatever you like about DC, but a bookstore a block is a pretty impressive ratio if you like bookstores! And while you would be quite right to suppose that Dupont is not a representative sample of the entire District, it turns out that DC is a pretty bookstore dense environment over all. The city occupies number 12 on the list of US locales with the most booksellers per capita. Of course we’re lagging behind hippie hangouts like San Francisco, Seattle and Portland…no surprise there I suppose…but there are some wildcards in there too. Cincinatti? Louisville? Scottsdale, AZ?? Hmph.

At any rate, I worked in the Dupont area on and off for much of the past semester and I’ve noticed that each of the three bookstores in question have a particular style to them. Kramer’s Books and Afterwords is, of course, the most tasteful and expensive of the three. I usually take visitors there because it’s like getting a little whiff of the nightlife without having to actually socialize or buy drinks. The staff must spend a lot of time choosing books for the front display section specifically for people like me, since I always want to read everything I see whenever I walk in there. The problem — the fatal flaw of Kramer’s — is that, much as I want to read these books, they don’t provide me with anywhere to get busy doing so! Unless you buy a coffee or a dessert or other value-added item, you are barred from sitting down. They even look askance at you if you stand there too long, there being little room for loafers in the Kramer’s universe.

So I go to Second Story Books on P st, which is a completely different vibe. They house an enormous collection of used books, prints, and other dust covered items in amusingly haphazard piles. They have so many books that there’s a handwritten divider denoting an entire section on the history of Thailand. Not that Thailand’s history is a narrow topic, but it’s certainly not a broad based category either. And the fact that the category label is handwritten reinforces the sense of flux, like nobody really cares about these books because the stock is always changing. Second Story is like one of those library clearence sales, where the books seem desirable because they look kind of kooky and worn and because they’re so cheap — so you buy them, but you never actually read them. There’s no place to sit, but nobody will object if you sit on the floor whittling away at a pile of obscure volumes…the general attitude is that if you’re actually interested in this stuff, then you have a right to be there.

Now my favorite of the trio is Books-a-Million. It’s a spacious, florescent-lit, basement store peddling mostly best seller swill and possessing neither the trendiness of Kramer’s or the bookworm appeal of Second Story. Like the Crown Books at the airport, it’s honest about being second rate. And it’s not independent — it’s corporate capitalism to the bone. My inner Anthony Hopkins from 84 Charring Cross Road is angry at me for hanging out there. (I remind him that this would only be an issue were I to actually spend money there.) Still, it has a decisive advantage over the other two, i.e. a good number of comfy chairs. In all of its soullessness, the corporate machine works in my favor because the staff have all seen the mandatory customer service video and they won’t harass me for sitting in said chairs and reading comics for however long I please! Much like Dunkin’ Donuts in the world of coffee, Books-a-Million is reliable, it’s pedestrian, it’s not half bad. Bookstores make me happy, and one where you can sit and unabashedly enjoy Sandman or whatever else, makes me particularly happy.


3 Responses to “Bookstores make me happy”

  1. Desiree Says:

    You failed to mention St. Louis (which has quite the bookstore populace, I might add).

  2. Desiree Says:

    This one being among my ultimate favorites: Not sure if it’s still there, but I can remember going there as a child & being utterly & completely mesmerized.

    Anyhow, I’ve definitely wandered around that part of town too many times & prattled too long on your blog…

  3. tripinchina Says:

    Yeah I guess I was waiting for you to call me out on the St. Louis thing. But the reason I didn’t mention STL is that it’s neither bizarre (like Scottsdale) nor obvious (like San Francisco)…

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