There’s nothing like a big, bright bookstore to brighten up a rainy day. It’s dark and gloomy outside in D.C. today, but I knew that dreary, rainy-day feeling would vanish once I stepped inside Politics and Prose. I could tell that it was going to be a bookstore well worth my trip into D.C. before even stepping inside. I think it was the big purple awning hanging over the store front that gave it away. It was either that or the name.
According to their website, the store opened twenty five years ago and the owners chose the name wanting to represent the D.C. area without being “pretentious.” I can understand not wanting to seem pretentious. Pretentious people are generally not enjoyable or friendly or fun. But bookstores, I think bookstores should be allowed to be a little bit pretentious. You know? They are bookstores. They provide the public with books and books are important. We need books. So if anything in this world could get away with being pretentious, it should be a bookstore. They never are though, which speaks a lot to bookstore’s personalities. They’re probably the only existing entity that could rightfully get away with being a teensy bit smug and proud, and yet they choose not to.
So, speaking of being unpretentious, Politics and Prose is friendly and welcoming and it offers an excellent stock of carefully selected books to its customers, just the way a good bookstore should. It’s neatly organized into easy to find sections and there’s something for every type of reader. When I first walked into the store I first stumbled into a table of books dedicated to books on current politics. How fitting. To the left side of the store I found the “New and Recommended” shelf, which features the current top ten bet sellers and a handpicked display of new and notable literature.
Politics and Prose is, without a doubt, a “Blogging from Bookstores” kind of place. They have plenty of chairs strewn all across the store that invite shoppers to take a seat and read for a bit. This idea is basically even a part of their business model. On their website they write:
“We see the store as a fun place to be, to shop, and to work in. We chat with customers. We urge them to sit down and look at books before they make a decision.”
So basically, it’s perfect. Perfect for book shopping. Perfect for reading. Perfect for writing and working. It seems like it couldn’t be any more perfect, right? Wrong. What really takes this bookstore to the next level is it’s Modern Times Cafe. It’s located in the store’s basement and is well equipped with plenty of tables and chairs, free WiFi, and of course, coffee and food! The menus are written in chalk on chalk boards in classic cafe style and everyone here is either working on their laptop, reading a book, or engaged in a deep conversation with friends.
When I entered Modern Times, it was packed. It didn’t look like there was one seat open, yet I still ordered my Iced Tea to stay because I was determined to find somewhere to set up camp with my laptop. I spotted a space where two older women were seated and noticed an open chair next to them. “Is anyone sitting here?” I asked. “Just my books,” one of the women responded as she smiled at me and moved her pile of newly purchased books to the floor. She cleared the space and I thanked her as I snagged the last available spot in this Bookstore Cafe Heaven. As I’m writing, I just overheard one of the baristas say to a customer, “Yeah, everybody’s doing double trips today.” I don’t blame them. If I lived closer to Politics & Prose and their Modern Times Cafe, there’s a good chance I’d make it here at least three times a day. Hell, who am I kidding, I’d just live here.
Is this a good place for reading and writing? I believe I have already made that clear, but just to reiterate, YES! YES! YES! Come here and bring your books (or better, buy some from them!) and your laptop and read and write away!
Bonus Points: A built in cafe, a kick-ass name, and noteworthy contributions to the local community by hosting tons of educational events and supporting local book clubs! Other highlights also include, fairly priced books, a cheap cafe menu (my iced tea was only $2!), an extremely knowledgeable staff, and a fantasy land kids section complete with a beanbag nook! (See slideshow for photos!)
What: Epically awesome, Independent Bookstore
Where: Washington D.C.
I discovered Capitol Hill Books when I read some fine, bookish words of wisdom from the store’s owner, Jim Toole, on Peoplesdistrict.com last week. After reading Jim’s sentiments about, books, independent bookstores, and acting “mentally lame,” (Hint: do not act mentally lame at Capitol Hill Books! Or ever for that matter.) I knew I had to visit his store.
When I walked through the front door, I was pleasantly surprised to see the very same man I had read about in the article sitting in front of the cash register, ringing up books for his customers. “Welcome,” he said with a smile. I smiled back and began to browse.
The amount of books in this store is overwhelming. But when I say overwhelming, I mean overwhelming in the good way that any hardcore lover of bookstore browsing wholeheartedly appreciates. To put it simply, Capitol Hill Books is three floors of an endless array of books. Once inside, you’ll never want to stop browsing.
The first floor houses endless shelves of non-fiction, plays, philosophy, and books about presidents and politics. (Just to name a few subjects.) Besides finding tons of used books by some of my favorite philosophers on the first floor, I was also smitten to find hanging on the wall, an article about Howard Zinn and his book A People’s History of the United States and a humorous note referring to Mr. J.D. Salinger. (Two deceased authors whom I would most certainly invite to my dinner table if you were to ask me which people, dead or alive, I would most want to have dinner with. Just in case you were wondering.)
Except for the the floors and the ceilings, there isn’t really one inch of Capitol Hill Books that isn’t occupied by books. Even the wall lining the stairway to the second floor is stacked to the brim with one book after another.
The second floor is mostly dedicated to fiction, and subsequently where I spent most of my time browsing. I found every author from Jane Austen to Tom Wolfe and the Bronte sisters to Vonnegut. Here, I decided on buying a used copy of The Great Gatsby, which I unfortunately have not read since high school and have been very much wanting to re-read. I also found and purchased Tom Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again. I’ve been wanting to read that one ever since I heard Demi Moore’s character reference it in Now and Then. (So, since 5th grade. Finally got to that one about 11 years later!)
The third level of the store is in the basement. The level beneath the ground is home to everything from humor to reference and books on specific topics such as hunting or Russia. Down here, there is at least one pile of books, if not more, dedicated to almost any topic you can think of. The one thing about the basement that you have to watch out for though, is the height of the ceilings. Anyone taller than me (and I’m not tall) will have a bit of difficulty navigating the lower level.
Although the amount of shelves and rooms in this store seemed endless and the organization of the books isn’t always completely clear, it’s neither frustrating or annoying because there are tons of little notes that direct you happily towards whatever it is you might be looking for. Plus, browsing and searching and then finally discovering is the best part of bookstore browsing, and I can safely say that Capitol Hill Books is essentially one of the best places I have found for doing so. It’s the perfect set up for an exciting book exploration adventure. When you start, you’re not sure just what you’ll find but you know for sure that it’s going to be good. At one point I overheard a girl say to her friend, “This is like your heaven.” No, girl, this IS heaven; enough books to last a lifetime and plenty of friendly fellow book lovers to share them with.
Is this a good place for reading or writing? This is a not a place for you to whip out your laptop and start blogging or writing. In fact, Jim Toole even says no cell phones. (“This is a book store and not a phone booth,” he says.) It’s a good, old fashioned bookstore and it will stay that way. However, the second floor is the perfect reading hideout. There are several chairs and any book lover could easily pull a book from one of the many shelves and feel perfectly comfortable diving into the pages for hours at a time without being bothered by anyone.
Bonus Points: Quirky categorical notes & signs, culturally relevant and unique decorations, reasonable prices, and the overall feeling of entering some sort of magical wonderland of books.