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indie bookstores

In Harvard Square, The Coop and The Harvard Bookstore loom large. The former is essentially a Barnes & Noble dressed as Harvard’s bookstore, paraphernalia and special interest sections galore. The latter is a little more of a heavyweight. Situated on Massachusetts Avenue in the heart of the square (a mere two blocks from The Coop, which makes no small difference), across the street from the University entrance and next to Bartley’s Burger Cottage, the classic Harvard burger joint, it has the makings of an intellectual and social hub. The main floor sports the major genres, including a section common to local stores devoted to books by famous Harvard professors (these are extremely pricey, but their Murakami selection is strong). For meager funded mortals, go downstairs. There you’ll find used and reduced priced titles in fiction, history, philosophy, poetry and drama. The back wall where you’ll find cheap literature is substantial for a store that ostensibly sports (and prices) reading material for the landed intelligentsia.

On the penultimate day of my conference at the Radcliffe Institute, I had a good two hours to kill (I recommend taking considerably longer, but still) before meeting my sister for dinner on Newbury Street. Just enough time for a city hike, down Massachusetts Avenue, across the Charles, and into the city proper. What I found turned out to be a veritable walking tour of some of the best independent bookstores in Boston. The Coop sits atop Massachusetts, where it forks by the Harvard Square T stop. A perfect starting point. It’s never not worth it to stop in there, at least to see who and what they’re showcasing. Their American history section on the first floor (of two) is particularly robust. But don’t tarry – head to The Harvard Bookstore either before or after fueling up for your walk at Bartley’s. After spending a thorough time at both places, and before setting off, take a detour southwest, down John F. Kennedy Street toward the river. Amid a row of upscale sushi and Indian restaurants you’ll find, in the basement of a commercial row house, Raven Used Books.

It’s tight, stuffy, and stocked with obscure titles. The first books I saw when I walked in were Franco Moretti’s two-volume history of the novel. I’m in paradise. It seemed that they had acquired a good deal of Harvard sell-backs and cast-offs from historiography to pop music. Be sure to scour every inch of this small place. It’s the best book store you’ll visit. For fiction people, they have good depth from the likes of Vollmann, Banville, Barth and other less marketed postmodernists. I was torn between one of Barth’s fatter late novels and a slimmer Banville, until I came across a novel I had been searching for for a while: Jim Crace’s Quarantine. This discovery solidified Raven’s status for me. I had to have it. It was, like most other novels on the shelf, a mere seven dollars.

Head back over and continue down Mass Ave until you see The Old Cambridge Baptist Church on your left, across the street. You should be standing in front of the red sign for Revolution Books. Behind the windowless wooden black door is a narrow staircase that leads up to the shop. It shares a floor with offices, and there are warnings posted–Keep Quiet: Therapy in Progress. Ultimately, I couldn’t help but think those signs actually referred to George, the volunteer holding court in the small room that was probably an office in a previous life. A thin, soft-spoken man of about fifty, he engaged me almost immediately in conversation (he and I were the only people in the store). He gently directed me to books, pamphlets, journals, and web sites dedicated to the socialist/communist cause. If only he could see Book Marx in London. He had never been. I didn’t buy anything, guiltily, but the store, though sparse, sports good and rich material on issues, in addition to Marxism, such as racial oppression and gender inequality (which are ultimately not terribly separable from the broader cause, anyway). After reminiscing a bit more and exchanging hardy thanks, I set back to the street.

The stretch of Massachusetts between Revolution Books and Harvard Bridge is a hipster scene, with quirky pubs and restaurants (as well as The Center for Marxist Education and The Greater Boston Buddhist Cultural Center). Here you will find Rodney’s Bookstore. It sports a formidable fiction section, as well as Boston history. I made my second purchase here, a pristine used copy of Barth’s Coming Soon!!! for six dollars. But the distinguishing mark of Rodney’s is what I’ve noticed as a burgeoning hipster hobby: a robust VHS collection. They’ve reserved the entire front section of the store to these clunky boxes casing The Cutting Edge and Jurassic Park. A curious commodity. The way down Massachusetts toward MIT is dotted with speeding flip-flopped hipsters aboard bicycles, perhaps racing home to watch a video. The area around MIT is beautiful, reminiscent of certain sections of London. The view across Harvard Bridge, especially near sunset, is spectacular, both for the skyline and for the crowds of cyclists and sailors. Mass Ave bustles as you cross Commonwealth and head down Newbury. At last the final stop on the tour: Trident Booksellers & Cafe. A hipster hub itself – microbrews, vegan foodstuffs, coffee. Wander the stacks to the soundtrack of First Wave FM, straight from the UK. But by this time you’ll probably be tired of wandering. Snag a title from any of the diverse sections, or from their sizable news stand, and saddle up with a beer to reflect on your journey. Or, you can head next door, to Newbury Comics, yes, that Newbury Comics, stalwart of a generation. All in all, a little hipster outpost on the edge of posh heaven. Take it all in, the center of the city, as the sun goes down.

I had downloaded an off-line map of Vancouver for my iPad to prepare for our trip. But when I searched its catalogue for bookstores, it yielded only the BC Marijuana Party Bookstore, located in the back of the BC Marijuana Party establishment just east of Gastown (I eventually visited at the end of the trip). Luckily, Google maps yielded considerably more options, spread across the city. But how to discern which to visit, on my limited conference schedule and lack of motorized transport? Our decided upon method was a combination of combing the neighborhoods that we already wanted to see, and tossing a net around the area of our hotel (Fairmont Downtown, conference headquarters, swank city, abuzz with hipster theorists).

Kitsilano proved to be gorgeous. Located on the west end of the Burrard and Granville bridges, it is home to the University of British Columbia and surrounding neighborhoods. We toured Point Grey Road along the water’s edge, admiring the view of the bay and mountains that was actually rivaled by the coastline mansions of diverse styles. We made it all the way to Jericho Park before turning back along West 4th. After passing ABC Books, a Chinese children’s textbook shop, we came to Kestrel Books. They prioritize quaintness over selection, but they do sport sections devoted entirely to different branches of Eastern spirituality, nature writing, travel narratives, and the like. The juxtaposition of titles in the fiction and poetry sections is particularly fun:

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Further down West 4th we stopped at the considerably larger Banyen Books and Sound (“Sound” refers to their collection of wind chimes and flutes on the left side of the store). That, actually, may be an indication of the type of store we were dealing with. Consider these lists of topics:

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There is an overall peaceful vibe there, though the fiction and poetry section sports only Beat meditations on Buddhism.

Between Banyen and the bridge are Comicshop and Drexoll Games (“Board Games & More”), but as it began to rain, we stopped for dinner before redoubling our effort to return to the Fairmont.

The following morning – still raining – we set out for MacLeod’s Books, on the corner of Richards and West Pender. Along the way we stumbled upon manga heaven (as well as a $2 copy of Madame Bovary):

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This bright homogeny (the whole store had that fluorescent Japanese flavor) contrasted sharply with what we found in MacLeod’s. But, as soon as we walked in, we knew we had found what we came for. Namely, beautiful used and rare books. Everywhere:

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This is the type of place that requires maximum restraint. Simply browsing will lead you to decades old copies and even originals from Bellow, Barth, Roth, Rushdie, and, well, pretty much every major novelist you like. When I get into situations like these, I tend to leave them all behind, so as not to open the floodgates. But I had to come away with something here. And then it hit me (really, it did, much more than I found it). The Mother Lode:

burgess

Disclaimer, now, for clairification. I collect used Anthony Burgess novels. There, I said it. Except for maybe Sam Weller’s in Salt Lake City, this was the best Burgess collection I have ever seen. But which to choose? I own most of the books in the photograph, so mostly I just wanted to choose something hard and small, for packing and travel. Moses simply stood out as the best choice. It’s a lyric narrative much like Byrne, and very much in Burgess’ preferred vein of historiography and biographical novels. Moses is the story of (yes, that) Moses in lyric epic, for $5. Quite an outing.

As a post script, we returned to MacLeod’s on our last day in Vancouver, after touring Gastown and backtracking to the Fairmont. I wanted to re-view their Barth section, just to see. Letters was under $10, but it’s bulky. I stopped in the bathroom before heading to the street again, and, mirabile dictu, even it was flooded with text. Books, magazines, posters, etc. I could easily have just shoved that copy of Adventures of Augie March into my pack. But of course that would be to desecrate this holy space (not only the bathroom, but, you know, the whole store). There was even a note pinned near the mirror – a customer apologizing for having stolen a book from here many years ago, with the appropriate $7 payment.

Respect.

If you go to Vancouver, go to MacLeod’s. But also go to shops that I didn’t get to, and comment here about it.

This is how I usually go to Kramerbooks. I arrive in Dupont Circle in the pre-dinner hour, emerging from the Q Street exit of the Metro and heading shortly down Connecticut Avenue and through the glass door by the shop window. Immediately you are inundated with wood shelves and stacks of all the books you’ve been reading about in magazines and online in recent weeks. Moreover, the smell of the place – coffee and pastries mostly, but pervasive and richer; it seems to have seeped into the pages – is most inviting. I browse the stacks of new releases, reading first pages and blurbs, getting a sense of what the reviewers have been talking about. The large wall to the left of the entrance comprises the fiction section, while smaller, chest-sized shelves in the foreground display titles in philosophy, religion and spirituality. In the back, facing the entrance, are travel and foreign language titles, as well as politics and history. Neighboring the back wall is the entrance to Afterwords cafe, with one of the best menus in Dupont, and not just for a bookstore.

When you enter the store and gravitate toward the fiction wall, there is an entrance adjacent to it to another room that houses poetry and local titles, as well as a shelf of recent anthologies from The New Yorker, Paris Review, and “Best American” series. Also in this second room is a cozy bar, where you can order a Rogue Dead Guy Ale, which, especially for $6.50, is up there with The Big Hunt’s House Amber as one of the best bets for beer in Dupont. Grab a book from any of the copious shelves and saddle up to a two-person table to peruse and sip before heading to happy hour or dinner.

Typically, I browse for a good quarter of an hour, before friends arrive and we head to another spot for drinks and dinner. During this short interim, I indulge fantasies of ownership, lament the limited capacity of my wallet and shelf space to accommodate all the books I want. But I gird myself and leave with nothing, happy to have looked, touched, but saved myself again. After wine at Circa or beer at The Big Hunt or vodka at The Russia House, grab a meal at any of the incredible restaurants in the Circle and surrounding areas. Maybe head to Gazuza for a nightcap, hookah, and some of the best downbeat jams in the city. Then, when you’ve had your fill of eat and drink, head back to Kramers for the best after-hours atmosphere in town. There is low-key live music every Friday and Saturday night, and the restaurant is open well into the early morning. Wind down the evening with friends over brownie sundaes or any one (or two) of their gourmet pies.

And then the coup de grace. Inhibitions and apprehensions disarmed, I return to the bookstore, at last ready to purchase. A night of full indulgence sufficiently dulls the pain of $27 for a Zizek or new fiction. Bargain books Kramers is not. But the massaging of the senses, physical and intellectual, makes for a great city night.

Visit kramers.com for menu options, music schedule, and hours.

Since I moved into my current house off of Kennedy street in Northwest last summer, Busboys and Poets, located just down 14th Street in the vibrant U Street corridor, has become an increasingly frequented spot. The bookstore/bar/restaurant is a cultural bastion for the bookishly inclined across the usually stark cultural divide in Washington, and the prevalent African American themes create a unique flavor not found at Kramers or Politics and Prose. The background music (which remains happily in the background) spins current and classic jams and R&B. The bookstore, considerably smaller than Kramers and P&P, identifies itself by content that you can’t find at the other two. The fiction and poetry sections focus primarily on the African American experience in a much more involved way, sporting the best black writers from across generations, many of whom you’ve never heard of. Their politics and culture section is beefed up, with shelves devoted to (mostly leftist, in a good way) accounts of the economic, political, social, and religious issues of the major regions of the world. What they lack in size, then, they compensate for with books that are hard to come by most elsewhere.

When you enter at the front (two doors up 14th from Marvin, one of the best restaurants in the city), the restaurant opens to the right. Two-person tables are interspersed among couches occupied by various types with laptops. If you turn to face this open area, the bar is on the left wall, adorned with a mural depicting manifestations of African-American femininity. The bookstore is located directly ahead of the entrance, before you have a chance to turn into the restaurant proper. After browsing the fiction section and turning a couple pages of D.C. Noir, I find a seat at the bar and order from their comprehensive beer selection and sneakily exquisite dinner menu (which sports many vegan and gluten-free meals). With Magic Hat in hand and shrimp and chorizo pasta on the way, I dig into Edward P. Jones’ All Aunt Hagar’s Children. As the late afternoon turned into early evening, more people arrived from work, and the conversational din began to rise. One can make an outing from eavesdropping, and the setup is conducive to it.

After dinner, I make my way to the back of the restaurant, past an area of high tables and booths and into the Langston Room (named after the poet), an enclosed space that hosts readings and discussions on a regular basis. The theme of the room is peace, and the walls are decorated with images and phrases from the likes of Ghandi, King, and the Dalai Llama, as well as local artists. Tonight I am here to see Jones himself, who was to discuss his participation in Marita Golden’s new book, a collection of interviews with major black writers about their literary upbringings. This was thrilling for me. Jones famously rarely appears in public. He was as I expected him to be: painfully shy, shielding his face from the spotlight throughout, barely making eye contact with questioners. Never smiling. He’s not prickly per se, but not as generous as other writers I’ve seen. His discomfort made me wonder why he agreed to show up at all, though I chalked it up to his character and loyalty to friend Golden. My mild disappointment was assuaged at the book signing, where I told him that I was a fifth generation Washingtonian, and my father had grown up in Southeast. He seemed to like that, and smiled when I told him he was DC’s Homer. My signed copy of The Known World is now one of my treasures.

Experiences like these are not uncommon at Busboys. Keep your eyes peeled on their website, busboysandpoets.com, for weekly open mic nights, and even more frequent readings and discussions with important writers from the African American, academic, and local spheres. The place hops for most of the day, from lunch, to afternoon coffee, to happy hour, to early evening events, to dessert and late-night conversation. Stop in before a night out on U St., or afterwards.