Bartleby's Books: An Institution Gone Too Soon

Bartleby's Books storefront
Bartleby's Books storefront

Given the tumult of activity up and down M Street, it’s always nice to take a detour down one of Georgetown’s side streets and duck into a quaint shop for a brief respite. For many Georgetowners, Bartleby’s Books, with its picturesque rows of antiquarian literature, has been the spot. Home to collectible prints, maps, and the occasional first edition copy of Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” (valued at $850), Bartleby’s is a rich, substantive haven for the literary community and history buffs alike. Regrettably, when the store’s lease runs out at the end of July 2011, it will cease to be a part of the community.

Bartleby’s has been in business for 27 years and weathered the last 17 in Georgetown. Four years ago, it made room for Juicy Couture at M St. and Thomas Jefferson St., relocating to its current address on 29th by the Four Seasons. Now the landmark must move again, this time to accommodate a restaurant owned by Eric Eden and Marlene Hu Aldaba, co-owners of Hu’s Wear. Worse news still — the transition is to the Internet.

Bartleby’s owners John Thomson and Karen Griffin watched their business change dramatically with the dawn of the Internet. According to Thomson, those looking for particular books now scour sites like Amazon and eBay while “used book stores are more for browsing.” For this reason, the two are not looking to relocate, instead opting to run the store online from home. It’s no secret that the Internet has been detrimental to the used books profession.

The conditions of antique books are meticulously evaluated at Bartleby’s, but online there is no way to gauge the accuracy of an appraisal. “Many people on eBay can’t tell an original document from a photocopy,” chided Thomson.

Additionally, the owners of online used book sites often lack expertise in the subject areas of the very books they sell. Thomson and Griffin specialize in the history of U.S. presidents and the D.C. area, particularly Georgetown. Now their wealth of knowledge on the materials they possess will be reduced to paragraph descriptions on a website.

No longer will Georgetown students be able to sift through the collections of used paperbacks left outside Bartleby’s on a sunny day. The pleasant surprise of coming across an unexpected novel will be forfeit. Then again, the demise of the independent bookstore has been a long time coming in Georgetown.

Thomson believes a combination of factors are responsible for the decline of stores such as Bartleby’s, including an excess of restaurants catering to tourists and the rise of department stores that take up entire buildings. He and Griffin can list off all the antique bookstores in Georgetown that went before them. They recognize themselves as the last of a type. The Lantern will be the sole rare bookstore of note in Georgetown, when they close shop.

Some members of the community have petitioned to preserve the local treasure. “They’ve been very supportive,” said Griffin. Nevertheless, she and Thomson seem at peace with the fact that their landlord has opted for an arrangement that will bring in more money; the Hu’s Wear restaurant obtained one of seven new liquor licenses in Georgetown.

“The greatest loss is for younger people, who might never see what the depth of this material can be,” reflected Thomas. However, the loss extends far past the students and youths around town.

Up and down M St., where restaurants are a dime a dozen, losing Bartleby’s will leave a gaping hole in our tradition and culture. Such a void can’t be filled by another cookie-cutter restaurant with ethnic flair. In the 17 years they have served the Georgetown community, Thomson and Griffin have acted as archivists of Georgetown’s rich history. Nowhere else in the District will you find a similar volume of works chronicling Georgetown’s past. Yet, in the name of higher revenue, Bartleby’s is being exiled to the realm of book fairs and the Internet — its contents pressed further towards obscurity.

Small businesses like Bartleby’s don’t merely add character to Georgetown; they are responsible for creating the charming, personal atmosphere it became known for. Now, one-by-one they are vanishing. In their place appear businesses less concerned with maintaining Georgetown’s intimate essence as they are with drawing in the rabble of visitors to the area.

When we force out two of our own, Georgetown will only be the worse for it.

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Sat, 25 Oct 2014 13:26:42 -0400

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