Each Thursday, to celebrate #IndieThursday, I’ve asked authors, bloggers, readers & other lovers of books to write about how independent bookstores have influenced their lives, or the lives of those around them. Today I’m pleased to welcome Brooke from Books Distilled, who takes a walk down memory lane as she reminisces about some of her favorite indies in the DC area.
An Invitation to Lose Yourself: Indie Bookstores
I lived in DC for two years after college, and I loved it. The zoo was free (I love zoos); there were great bars and restaurants; there were tons of free museums, and I worked close enough to the White House that I’d eat lunch in Lafayette Park during spring and summer, ignoring the perpetual string of protesters.
But let’s talk about the indie bookstores. While I love all bookstores, simply because I can run my hands over books I’ve loved and pick up books that might change my life once I read them, independent bookstores have a special place in my heart. They’re so easy to get lost in.
I often walked several blocks down 13th Street from my Columbia Heights apartment to grab a cup of coffee at Busboys and Poets (named for Langston Hughes) and browse their small bookstore. It may be small, but it has a plethora of great titles you’d never see featured in Barnes & Noble. I loved that it had such a huge Spanish section, and even though I barely speak Spanish I’d pick up a book every time and see how much of the first page I could decipher.
An even further walk in the other direction led me to Red Onion. A one-room bookstore at the bottom of 18th Street in Adams Morgan, Red Onion is run by a guy who gives out free cake on the store’s anniversary if you’re lucky enough to remember when that is. They also sell used records (actual records! When was the last time you saw one of those?) and CDs. If you’re a music buff, they’re apparently a big deal; but I’m a literary faithful and only had eyes for the books. I bought some great ones there, most memorably Marisa de los Santos’s addictive novel Love Walked In.
The most famous indie bookstore in DC is, of course, Politics and Prose. If you live in the area, they have a great email newsletter about upcoming author readings and other fun events. I could never get up there for any of those, which were often on week nights, but I’d drive up on a Saturday afternoon, pick three or four books off the shelves, and read a few pages of each. Then I’d buy one and sit in the café and read and read. At the time, my husband and I were dating long-distance. When he’d leave after a weekend visit to drive back to North Carolina, I’d often go to Politics & Prose to drown my sorrow in books.
But my favorite indie bookstore in DC is Capitol Hill Books, a used bookstore in Eastern Market. It’s completely enchanting. There are books everywhere. They are piled up to the ceiling on a shelf along the staircase, which is so narrow that only one person can go up or down at a time. There are hand-written notecards placed along the stacks directing you to specific authors with a large volume of work, with tags such as “Austen over derr” or “Look up for Dickens.” In short, magical.
If you leave the store without buying anything, the owner will look at you, shake his head and say, “All those books, and not one for you? What a lousy store.” It’s a pretty effective marketing technique.
One day when I was working unsuccessfully on my novel, I decided I wanted to buy Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird. I’d borrowed it from a friend the first time I read it, but decided I needed to own it. So I took the metro out to Eastern Market and hunted through Capitol Hill Books. It wasn’t under Lamott’s name; it wasn’t in the nonfiction section. I was waiting in line to ask the owner if he had it when my gaze traveled upward and landed on a hardcover copy of the very book for which I was searching, perched precariously on top of a high shelf. I found a stepstool and got it down and took it to the counter, thrilled with my discovery.
The owner rang it up. “Thirty,” he said.
I gaped. His used books are usually under ten dollars. “Are you kidding?”
He looked offended. “No. It’s autographed.” And he showed me the flyleaf, where Anne Lamott’s scrawling signature sat inoffensively, marking the book up to three times its value. I grudgingly handed over my credit card, breaking my book budget for the month (my rent was expensive). But I went home and read Bird by Bird and laughed at Anne Lamott. I treasure the book even more now because it has her autograph.
Check out IndieBound for the nearest indie bookstore and get lost in the stacks!
Brooke Law writes at Books Distilled, where she recently launched an online book club. She currently lives in Long Island, where the nearest decent indie bookstore is a forty-minute drive. Follow her on Twitter.
Participation in #IndieThursday is simple: just visit your local independent bookstore, either in person or online. Tweet what you purchased, as well as the name of the store, using the hashtag #IndieThursday. Help celebrate indie bookstores!
If you would like to do a guest post on how independent bookstores have influenced your life, please email me at jennsbookshelfATgmailDOTcom.