The secret sauce is its mix of functions for big shots and lesser-known writers. For instance, this past month, National Book Award-winning biographer Ron Chernow and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke at the store, as did novelists Myla Goldberg and Dinaw Mengestu. Plus, the store hosts 17 book groups on topics ranging from James Joyce to graphic novels. Each group meeting usually brings in two dozen readers, Meade says, who often peruse the shelves before and after.
It looked like I stumbled upon the most popular ornithological seminar ever. Clusters of college students and office workers were milling about at 6 p.m. Friday on the steps of George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, each carrying a tome with a blue bird on the cover. They had come early to grab a seat to hear Jonathan Franzen speak about his new book, Freedom. The talk was originally scheduled for Politics and Prose, but the staff changed the venue because of the expected crowds. More than 900 people turned out.
For authors, a nod from a place like P&P is a big deal. Writers who can’t gain an Oprah endorsement or Time magazine cover, like Franzen, have to rely on independent bookstores to generate interest. Novelist Wallace Stegner said Carla Cohen lifted his work to the national stage. Lucy Kogler, manager of Talking Leaves Books in Buffalo, N.Y., says she was a champion of first-time Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, well before the book captured critical acclaim.
But hosting and championing writers also pays off for stores. P&P’s ability to host the Franzen event—and sell 700 books as a result—represents a chunk of sales that your average shopping-mall bookstore, or Internet giant, doesn’t get. “Amazon and the Kindle don’t build community,” says Andy Shallal, owner of Busboys and Poets, the local chain of restaurants/bookstores.
It’s no wonder, then, that newer stores have sought to take P&P’s bread and butter—literature as spectacle—and render it even more spectacular, if not quite as literary. Shallal’s establishment near 14th and U streets NW, on a strip that is as hopping as upper Connecticut Avenue is sleepy, has a full-on restaurant, rather than a mere coffee shop. It hosts concerts and performances that draw a younger crowd than the generally gray-haired regulars at Politics and Prose. Busboys & Poets has a staff of five planners who schedule events at eight different spaces in three locations: the original 14th Street NW space, 5th and K streets NW, and one in Arlington’s Shirlington neighborhood. (Having been initially inspired by evocations of the African-American literary renaissance of the 1920s, Shallal is now planning a New York outpost in Harlem.) Unlike Politics and Prose, Busboys & Poets charges for many of its events, $4 a head on open-mic poetry night or, recently, $50 per person for a dance party celebrating a new book from Alice Walker and $70 per person if you wanted a signed copy. Bookselling is a smaller part of this mix. The bookstores in Shallal’s establishments are run by a non-profit, Teaching for Change. The book part of the business has been constant, but not growing, he says. Where Cohen used to speak reverentially about reading, Shallal thinks most of his customers don’t actually read what they buy. “They put them on a shelf. They just want a reminder of the experience,” he says.
All the same, Busboys and Poets may represent a vision of bookselling’s future. Since he opened his third Busboys and Poets in a Mount Vernon Triangle condo project in 2008, Shallal says he received about 20 offers from developers to operate at various other locations. Busboys & Poets has 800 square feet of bookselling space, which is less than one-tenth of Politics and Prose’s space, and offers some progressive titles you may not find at Politics and Prose. But it’s telling that Shallal talks about dining, an activity you can’t do electronically, when he celebrates the community that he’s brought together. “In Washington, you rarely see blacks and whites eating together,” he says. “Busboys & Poets has that.”
I went to the 14th Street NW Busboys and Poets on a Friday night in October for dinner. My table wedged between a white hipster couple and a group of four young African-American women in the back of the restaurant. The scene was diverse and vibrant, especially compared with the older, whiter crowd at Politics and Prose. But from the restaurant, you couldn’t tell Busboys & Poets had a bookstore. After dinner, I squeezed into the stacks to avoid the line of people waiting for a table. There were no handy staff recommendations posted under the books, like Politics and Prose has, and no quiet place to browse before buying. The book section felt like a kiosk.