Wisdom and Coffee

The South American papier-mache puppets hanging in the window are the first clue this isn’t a Barnes and Noble. Way up Connecticut Avenue, 10 minutes from the UDC/Van Ness Metro stop, is Politics and Prose, one of D.C.’s last great independent bookstores.

But what really makes a bookstore independent? Beyond the obvious financial differences, what sets a place like Politics and Prose apart from the Borders Books and Barnes and Nobles that dot the city like paperback-filled monoliths?

Politics and Prose is stacked with over 40,000 titles. It carries CDs and greeting cards. The lower level hosts a children’s section and a cafe where hungry bookworms can nosh on sandwiches and coffee while listening to hip-sounding jazz. But those things are all increasingly becoming the norm at just about any mid-sized bookstore. The prices are about the same as those of a chain bookstore, and so is the selection. So why do people come all the way out here?

Politics and Prose began more than 18 years ago in a world without Internet in which chain bookstores were still a long way off. It quickly became a community institution, not because it was bigger or flashier than other bookstores, but because it catered to book lovers.

“Good indie stores have been able to weather the large chain stores because we offer the customer atmosphere,” said Danny Gainsburg, one of the owners of Politics and Prose.

It’s good that Gainsburg has a plan – 20 years younger than his partners, he’s the one who’ll have to look after the store’s future in a time when bookstores, especially independent bookstores, are not as prevalent as they once were. Not that he should worry – his customers are a dedicated lot and they shop there for a reason.

“People support us because we’re independent. They’re willing to come here for what we can provide … we have atmosphere,” Gainsburg said.

At the main counter, one of the clerks discusses the New York Times Review of Books with a customer. Another clerk weighs the merits of Tom Stoppard’s early work against his latest play. Everywhere, the staff is engaged in the customer’s experience, but not in that ultra-nosy “Hi! Can I help you find anything?” mode so many clerks have drummed into their heads. They’re part of the atmosphere, lending the store the feel of a place where knowledge is dispensed.

“We serve a very specific group, mostly well-educated, many with specific interests … We aren’t a political bookstore per se. If you look at the numbers, we sell more fiction than any one other group, but we don’t sell nearly as much (fiction) as other places,” Gainsburg said. “It’s a question that we’re having to ask ourselves more and more these days – Do we want to try to attract more students, more young people. Do we want to stock some edgier stuff?”

The clientele is definitely part of the draw of this bookstore. Politics and Prose has a scene to it. Many of the patrons are regulars, drawn into a sort of community that comes with sharing something as intimate as the search for books. Many join a book group and take part in one of 14 free monthly book discussion meetings. Others compare purchases or discuss recent favorites.

Running a business that plays up the customer service angle can be a lot of work, however, Gainsburg said.

“The hardest part of most jobs is the customer service angle,” he said. “Every now and then, you’ll get somebody who’ll come in saying they need a book that they can’t name or describe, but they’re positive it has a bicycle involved in it somehow.”

At Gotham Books in New York people come from all over to find rare first editions and books that have been out of print for 100 years. There, the air is thick with the smell of dust and cedar bookcases – it smells like wisdom. Politics and Prose is ultra-modern, even hip. It carries bestsellers, is nearly dust-free and smells vaguely of cappuccino. But that last bit, the wisdom, is still there.

There’s more to it than that, however. Toward the back of the store, in front of a crowd of more than 100 people, a hearty, gray-haired man leans against a podium, spinning tales of his adventures in Africa. It’s Paul Theroux, the noted travel writer and novelist who once paddled across the Pacific Ocean in a canoe. And now he’s here, offering Politics and Prose patrons free advice on traveling and writing.

“Being a traveler requires a certain disposition. You have to be cheerful, approachable; otherwise you’ll never get anywhere. That’s not to say you can’t be melancholic. Kipling was horribly moody, but when he felt down he’d just go hide in his tent for a bit. The trick is to come back out,” Theroux said. The crowd offers a dry, approving chuckle.

For some members of the audience, this is a big deal. They ask him for writing advice and ask detailed questions about his older works. Politics and Prose hosts a different free author lecture almost every night, inviting poets, travel writers, novelists and philosophers to speak.

“There’s real variety there,” Gainsburg said. “We give preference to local authors … sometimes we’ll just have a mystery writer here, but not usually … the books that are on the New York Times Bestsellers list, those are not usually bestsellers here.”

The guest speakers add something to the place, not just by providing shoppers with insight and entertainment, but by lending it clout. Not every bookstore can accommodate free readings like this, and very few can have speakers of that magnitude with any regularity, let alone almost every night. This is the kind of store to which authors are attracted, both because intelligent readers are drawn to it and “because of our reputation,” Gainsburg said.

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