Alternative spaces

As bookstores across the nation compete with the quick access and discounted prices offered by online retailers, some independent outlets in the city are emphasizing using their space for what the Internet cannot offer: face-to-face discussion.

“Political movements started when local community members could get together to talk,” said Don Allen, general manager of Busboys and Poets, a bookstore, restaurant and performance space located near Howard.

Independent bookstores in the District provide a venue for community gathering and discussion, Allen said, noting that many of his clientele bond over their investment in environmental issues.

The space is “not just as a place to hang out and buy books, but for the community to have a dialogue,” Allen said. Busboys and Poets, named in honor of Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes, who worked as a busboy in D.C., was founded on these principles. The bookstore component exists as a nonprofit, and the space is operated by Teaching For Change, an educational activist group established in D.C. in 1989.

Allen said the chief pressure of independent bookstores is competition, not only with commercial chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble, but with the Internet in particular. He cited online retail Web site amazon.com as a major concern, which due to sheer volume of sales is able to offer significant discounts to buyers – something a small store simply cannot afford to do.

“If you’re buying something on the Internet, you’re not keeping money in your community,” he said. “Buying from Amazon is no different than buying from Wal-Mart.”

In some cases, an independent space can establish itself a fixture in the city. Kramerbooks, on Connecticut Avenue by the Dupont Circle Metro station, opened in 1976 and presents itself as an area staple.

Dave Cook, originally from Illinois, said he started working at Kramer’s when he first moved to D.C. seven years ago.

“I think we always face competition, but since we’ve been here so long, we do have a loyal fan base,” Cook said, citing the restaurant, bar and books as draws for locals and tourists alike. Still, he reiterated Allen’s concern.

“Competition for us and I think really for other bookstores isn’t coming from other bookstores. It’s coming from the Internet,” Cook said. “Amazon is so easy. You just click, and you get a discount or they send it to you for free. You don’t have to leave your house.”

So aside from housing a restaurant, how does an independent compete?

For Barbara Meade, co-owner of Politics and Prose, a bookstore on Connecticut Avenue, the answer is simple.

“Get people into the store,” she said, be it with events in the store or in the larger community.

Politics and Prose hosts ten events a week in the store, and combined with events hosted around the city, the number of events in a week reaches anywhere from 15 to 20.

“An important part of all of these events are questions,” Meade said, emphasizing the importance of presenting a connection between readers and writers – who might otherwise receive little media attention. It’s getting people there that establishes community, she said, and opens a dialogue.

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