Best Messy Bookstores

Capitol Hiil Books (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Capitol Hill Books, Books for America, Second Story Books

Now that you can order any book in print online in just seconds, brick-and-mortar bookstores can’t pride themselves on merely having a well-organized space where the book you want is easily located. A little character goes a long way now, and better stores know it. That’s led to a few blah ideas, like the “shelf-talker” staff-recommendation cards—can we have a 10-year moratorium on telling me to read Middlesex? Please?—and some outright bad ones. (No more folk singers!) The character of the bookstore is best defined by the books themselves, so I have a soft spot for a store that puts them all over the place. Here are three of my favorites.

Capitol Hill Books
657 C St. SE, (202) 544-1621

Books on China? Somewhere in the dimly lit basement. The Georges Simenon thriller you’ve been trying to find for years? It’s under a 5-foot-high stack of John Grisham thrillers. Foreign literature? In the bathroom. This Eastern Market institution is a masterpiece of controlled chaos, strewing 20,000 books across three floors in stacks that still roughly adhere to correct classification and organization. The owners have an arch sense of humor, too, displayed on cards around the store: The copies of Mein Kampf are “not signed,” and a sign near the door lets you know that the Norman Mailer reading has been canceled. Aaron Beckwith, who with two other staffers runs the T-shirt outfit T-Shirt Insurgency in the hopes of eventually buying the store, notes that Capitol Hill Books used to have to manage a collapsing stack of books a few times a day, but since opening the basement up a few years ago, the literary avalanches arrive only once or twice per weekend.

Books for America
1417 22nd St. NW, (202) 835-2665

Books for America tried to fight the good fight for a while—the local nonprofit, which donates books to the needy around the D.C. area, opened its bookstore in 2005, and until recently its smallish space in Dupont Circle seemed pretty much under control. There’s no better place in the area to get paperback contemporary fiction cheap, often for just a couple of bucks per book, and back then alphabetization was the order of the day. To step into Books for America now is to see a bookstore in the process of winning the war against unnecessary tidiness—plastic bins of paperbacks line the floors, ordering crime paperbacks is on the back burner, and the new arrivals table is now a new arrivals table and floor. For anybody who enjoys a little crate-digging, the store is slowly learning to do it right.

Second Story Books
2000 P St. NW, (202) 659-8884; 12160 Parklawn Dr., Rockville, (301) 770-0477

The Dupont Circle outpost of this antiquarian bookstore isn’t really messy—and its sizable warehouse HQ in Rockville isn’t at all—though it does have the dimly lit, cozy feel of a shop full of well-worn used books, and the stock is regularly replenished. (Make a beeline toward the back when you enter—that’s where the store keeps its stacks of new releases, where the prices beat even the deep-discount chains.) A little bit of sprawl announces itself on warmer, sunnier days, when the staff breaks out the bargain tables, and passers-by can trawl through a fairly mediocre selection of Apple IIe user’s guides and bricks of Herman Wouk.

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