Independent bookstores, like people, have their own personalities. That’s why I prefer these stores to the cavernous and cold Barnes and Nobles of the world. Going to a new indie bookstore is like making a new friend. You feel a thrill of excitement as you wander further inside and uncover all its quirky traits. Recently, in just one day, I was lucky enough to visit two very different bookstores in Washington, DC and make two new bookstore friends….
Indie Bookstore 1: “Watching, Waiting, Dreaming, Resisting.”
It’s just before noon when we enter. We step out of the hot sun and into a cool room with soaring ceilings and walls lined with windows that let in just enough light to make it feel fresh and bright.
There’s no library-like quiet here either. Voices and glasses are raised. They clink together creating a loud buzz that tickles a smile onto my lips. Tucked into the corner I noticed a small stage. Along the wall next to it, quotes, drawings and photographs of Ghandi, Mandela, King crawl across the paint like sketches in a notebook. There is so much to see, at times it feels overwhelming. I want to touch every picture, read every caption, stare at every word.
Bright pops of modern art stack up a tall gray wall like totem polls. Couches and chairs surround tables littered with plates and drinks and books. This part of the store where people chow on foods like yellow tomato gazpacho or sweet fuji apple and gorgonzola sandwiches feels trendy and modern.
I stumble back a few steps toward a door and the scene changes. I’m now in a different place. A patchwork of colorful book spines line dark wood shelves that require a wheeled ladder to reach the top. In this corner it feels cozier, like the ceilings are lower even though they’re the same height as everywhere else in the room.
I think it’s as if I’ve stepped into someone’s personal library and I like this person. This person doesn’t read only books that hit the New York Times bestseller list. This person reads books that push boundaries, highlight different people and ideas and celebrate diversity. I like this place.
These two aesthetics sharing one space should seem incongruent. It’s a restaurant. It’s a bookstore. It’s a music venue. It’s theater. It’s doesn’t need to be any one thing. It doesn’t need to be labeled. It is just Busboys and Poets.
As the menu explains, the establishment is named after Langston Hughes. The story goes that while working as a busboy in DC, Hughes once slipped his poetry to a famous writer, thus starting his career and inspiring a future bookstore/restaurant/music venue/theater.
It’s a place with a motto that goes beyond books or food. It’s written on the t-shirts of the people who work there: “Watching, Waiting, Dreaming, Resisting.” At first I don’t think much of these words grouped together. They don’t strike me as particularly inspiring. Just four words. I am almost a little disappointed, as if I expected more from a place such as this.
I sit down with my husband to eat and I watch the people around me, enthralled in gregarious discussions. People lean in, laugh or tip back in chairs with smiles on their faces. And there are so many faces, all different, all wonderful. I watch.
My eyes move to the wall in front of me and I trace the outlines of powerful words from the great people. I wonder about them, lost in their words, their dreams. And my dreams wiggle to the surface. I dream of a future where a place like this isn’t viewed by many as different or counterculture. I dream that someday it won’t be filled with people who are forced to resist. It reminds me I’ll have to wait a little longer for that day to come.
Watching, Waiting, Dreaming, Resisting. Like this bookstore, maybe those words are more powerful than they seem.
Indie Bookstore 2: Don’t Judge a Bookstore by Its Font
It’s late afternoon now and it’s hot. I want to rush through the tinted doors. But I can’t. I find the front of the bookstore curious. It’s the font, I realize. It’s a strange font, like something I’d see in an advertisement for Medieval festival scribbled across an awning stained by many years of rain and snowfall. For a progressive, indie bookstore, the outside feels archaic.
I slip inside and look around, trying to decide where to go first. Decorations are sparse. So are windows. The store is utilitarian, almost office-like with its tiled drop ceiling, glowing florescent lights and thick square columns.
At first glance, I note that I’ve seen this before even though I’ve never been here. To the left and right books cover every inch of the walls and teeter high in stacks on tables. It’s organized chaos. Big signs in that strange font try to guide customers through the long room that stretches back so far I can’t see the end. It makes for a confusing treasure map, but a familiar one, just like other indie bookstores I’ve visited. But we all know not to judge a book by its cover.
A stairway just inside the doors takes me to a cellar-like space filled with low walls and more books. I want to stay down there. But I don’t. I’ve come here with my husband for a purpose beyond books.
We’re here to see a speaker and not just any speaker. We’re here to listen to David Cole, National Legal Director for the ACLU talk about his new book. We’re also late. There are no seats. The generous area carved out for the folding chairs has already filled up. Now people, like us, must squeeze into the narrow bookshelf arranged aisles on the edges.
I don’t mind. This is why I came to Politics and Prose. It’s my first visit. But I know this bookstore in more ways than one. It’s pretty famous in DC. Given the name, it’s not so surprising that the store outwardly expresses it’s political beliefs. It wears its support of progressive ideas on its book sleeve.
The crowd hushes as Mr. Cole sits in his chair. A tickle runs up my arm. There is something different about this bookstore, as if some electric undercurrent of knowledge and power hums beneath it.
Mr. Cole begins to speak. I fiddle with a book in front of me, unable to stop myself. Books always suck in my attention. It doesn’t take long for the discussion to pull me back from the pages.
His message is compelling. When the official checks and balances in the government erode, as is happening now, We the People are the unofficial balance and by coming together via peaceful activism and resistance we can be effective in keeping a balance of power. When he’s finished, a line of people gather to ask him questions – thoughtful, poignant, worried questions.
He answers each carefully and manages to deliver a positive message in a time that feels very negative. It’s also something more. It’s a message delivered not at a rally or a march or in a speech given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Instead, I hear it in an indie bookstore on a quiet, tree lined street in Washington, DC. A bookstore that to a passerby might look old, boring, mundane, typical.
But when you look inside, closely, it’s anything but typical. Its books rattle with the excitement of thought. Its floors creak under the feet of people who want to discuss and learn. This store is like a person who appears plain on the outside, quiet, reserved even, but on the inside is brimming with passion and ideas and questions and resistance.
Two different bookstores. Two different unique personalities all their own, but each one reminds me that no indie bookstore is just a bookstore. They’re a place for community and growth and conversation. I can’t wait to get back to these two to learn even more about them.