The D.C. Book Hunt: Indie Bookstores (Part One)

A New England transplant, I only recently moved to D.C., the land I have long considered to be a place where indie used bookstores do not thrive. It’s a silly assumption I made long ago based on a few people I met from the area. None of them ever mentioned spotting great deals in a bookstore, loving the scent of used books, or browsing bookstores other than Busboys and Poets (an awesome bookstore, fair trade market, and restaurant, but certainly not a place just for book browsing), Kramerbooks (also a fun place to hang out, although expensive and with more restaurant space than bookshelves), or Barnes & Noble, so I just presumed the area was not famous for its indie bookstores. (We are not in Brooklyn or Cambridge anym0re.)

This past weekend, I decided to see what the D.C. used bookstore scene has to offer. I picked out four stores, all in the Dupont Circle area that looked appealing, based on their company websites: Second Story BooksBooks for AmericaKulturas, and Red Onion Records & Books.

Saturday morning at 10:45, I left my place, giant duffel bag in hand, and decided to explore Second Story Books first. It’s a short jaunt from the Dupont Metro Station (a two-minute walk), housed in an attractive building with $3 book carts out front. The front of the store hosts many of the store’s rare book collection (read: expensive and mostly behind glass) along with recently released fiction and non-fiction hardcovers, all around 50% off retail price and still in immaculate condition. I was tempted by a few, but I didn’t want to weigh myself down with a stack of books just yet. (It’s a book marathon, not a sprint, I kept repeating to myself.) Further back in the store, there was a special edition Harry Potter chest filled with all seven books. It was $100. I took a photo with my BlackBerry and sent it to my father, the Harry Potter lover in the family. I then finally began perusing the fiction, poetry, and non-fiction shelves which were mostly new-ish paperbacks with a few hardbacks thrown in for good measure. It seemed everything was under $10, and most were under $6. Not bad. The collection was mostly comprised of well-known but not mainstream authors, as in Sandra Cisneros, Philip Roth, and Virginia Woolf, but certainly not many mass-distributed books by the likes of Mary Higgins Clark or Nicholas Sparks. I left the store with four purchases: The Female Malady by Elaine Showalter; Wild Women: Contemporary Short Stories by Women, Celebrating Women, edited by Sue Thomas; Feminist Fairy Tales by Barbara Walker, and Essential Acker: The Selected Writings of Kathy Acker, edited by Amy Scholder and Dennis Cooper.Stack of used books with a book featuring Marilyn Monroe in the foreground.

Next up was Books for America, which was about a three minute walk down the road and situated right next to indie coffee house Soho Tea & Coffee where I took a quick stop for a cappuccino (it was expensive, but awesomely presented in a glass jar). Books for America is more than a used bookstore, it’s the storefront of the larger non-profit organization which distributes new and used books to disadvantaged individuals. According to their website, recipients include “adult and youth literacy programs, youth centers, transitional homeless shelters, hospitals, inner-city and rural schools, military bases, assisted living communities for seniors, veterans hospitals, women’s shelters, hospices, and other such organizations.” In other words, I felt good about where my dollars were going. The store was a lot smaller than Second Story Books, but it also had a bit more of a casual, friendly atmosphere (everyone shopping there seemed to be alone, but was very chatty with workers and other shoppers – and in a good way). It was also considerably less expensive. Most books I saw were under $4.50, though many were $3. I ended up with The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler; Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford, The Subjection of Womenby Mill (it’s about time I read it!), and The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Granted, there were many more mass-produced books and self-help books than Second Story Books, but their collections of gender studies books and biographies were much more extensive (and liberal). As I left, a man arrived with three large boxes of books, so I bet the store has a lot of turnover: also a plus. (Sidenote: upon visiting their website again today, I realized that the organization’s director is a Connecticut College alum. Oh how I love my alma mater.)

The books weighing me down a bit, I took the stroll up to Kulturas, which was about a fifteen-minute walk from Books for America. The store sold me before I even went inside with its “Books without Batteries” sticker. Inside, the store was tiny and filled to the brim with bookshelves packed two-books deep, and a rack of vintage clothes and handmade fabrics. Their collection was mostly composed of out-of-print and rare art and photography books, but they also had a big selection of leftist political books and obscure fiction titles. That sold me even more. There was one half-shelf of mass market paperbacks in the back on the lowest shelf which indicated that this too-cool store barely wanted to admit that they sold such books. As I glanced at the art books, I found a first-edition hardback copy of Marilyn by Norman Mailer and had to stop myself from jumping up and down with excitement. I’ve been looking for a good copy of this book for about two years now, and here it was, sitting casually amongst other modern photography books. Perfection. I also ended up purchasing a nice copy of Omeros by Derek Walcott and a first edition of Searching for Mercy Street by Anne Sexton’s daughter, Linda Gray Sexton. The store was the most expensive of the ones I visited on this trip, but it also had the most offbeat-like feel.

At this point, weighed down by the weight of the books and the thought of my already-lightened wallet, I didn’t end up walking over to Red Onion, which was to be my final stop of the day. Another time.

All in all, it was a successful day of book hunting, and it proved to me that D.C. does indeed have a decent selection of used and indie bookstores. Next up: Capitol Books, Red Onion, Books Used & Rare, The Lantern, Bartleby’s Books, and Idle Time Books.

By Claire S. Gould

Claire is a social justice communications nerd by day and a bookish feminist blogger by night. She runs the popular blog Bibliofeminista as well as Today in Women's History, a project celebrates a woman in history every day.

Outside of work, blogging, and volunteering, Claire enjoys consuming caffeine, making and appreciating art, watching classic films, and endlessly discussing progressive politics.

6 replies on “The D.C. Book Hunt: Indie Bookstores (Part One)”

Ahhhh you were in my neighborhood! I live a stone’s throw away from Kramer’s.

I would second highjump’s recommendation of Capitol Hill Books, and also add Bridge Street Books on the edge of Georgetown. I think there are a few other independent/used stores in g-town as well, but a friend worked at Bridge Street, so I have fond memories of that place.

DC has a great independent bookstore scene. It one of my favorite things about this trying city. I think all of the wonks and the fact that people move in and out a lot leads to a lot of orphaned books. My personal favorite store is Capitol Hill Books by Eastern Market. It’s absolutely stuffed with books, perfect for a fun hunt. Prices are just okay. Plus there is all the fun of Eastern Market right there, it’s a great place to spend a Saturday.

When I went to UMD I would always make weekend trips to DC especially for Capitol Hill Books. (And Amsterdam falafel, but mostly for CH’s awesome selection). Totally agree with this endorsement.

I enjoy Kultura but find it a little overwhelming to browse in there… the aisles are so small and cramped!

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