Tucked just off Wisconsin Avenue at 1132 29th St. on the edge of Georgetown’s lively commercial district is the unassuming but consequential Bartleby’s Books, which specializes in rare and antiquarian books.
While most Washingtonians have walked past the bookshop countless times crossing the bridge to and from Georgetown, only those who frequent the store know that by the end of the month, Bartleby’s will close.
Not limited to rare and antiquarian books, Bartleby’s specializes in American history and law, with a strong selection of books on military history, local history, literature, poetry and travel. (On a recent visit to the store, browsing through DC ephemera I found city reports from the early 1970’s that analyzed metro’s impact on neighborhoods in Far NE.)
With the store’s closing, the count of book stores in greater Georgetown has now dwindled to less than a half dozen. A block east of Bartleby’s is Bridge Street Books at 2184 Pennsylvania Ave. The Barnes & Noble on 3040 M St. is nearby with the remaining book stores in Georgetown on P St. and across Wisconsin Ave. from the foot of Book Hill Park.
As a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA), Bartleby’s is one of 450 registered and licensed book sellers specializing in antiquarian materials. According to Susan Benne, Executive Director of ABAA, between 1/3 and 1/2 of members have storefronts. Other members “deal privately in an office” or from their homes.
Second Story Books, with a storefront in Dupont Circle and an enormous warehouse in Rockville, is well known. Wonder Book, with a warehouse in Frederick and storefronts in Hagerstown and Gaithersburg, is the next closest place to find antiquarian books before visiting Baltimore’s ABAA stores.
Bartleby’s was started by iconoclastic John Thomson, Vice-President of ABAA, with his wife in Bethesda in November of 1984; Bartleby’s’ namesake comes from a Herman Melville novella, “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” They have been in their current location on 29th St. for the past five years after moving from previous locations in Georgetown.
“It’s the best bookstore in the city,” said Morgan Holley, a recent graduate of the French International School. “There’s nostalgia and a connection you feel when you have an older book.”
Holley and her classmate, Lydia Dulce, compared Bartleby’s to one of their other favorite bookstores; Shakespeare and Company on Paris’ Left Bank.
“Younger people come in here every day and say they have never seen anything like it,” says Thomson. “The store gives them a historic sensibility of books and what they mean to the human experience.”
“Bookstores are a disappearing phenomenon,” said Joy Denman, a retired educator who lives down the street from the store. “I can’t bear to see them leave. We need to halt this disaster!” she said waving an out-of-print work by Upton Sinclair that she found through the store.
The closing was first reported last fall. By the end of the month, only memories of Bartleby’s Books will remain. In a wider examination of Bartleby’s closing and its impact on the city’s literary culture I feel, as a book reader and collector, a deep sense of loss but also regret that I won’t have more years to explore and get lost in the shelves.
In our city and culture where information and news moves with increased frequency we often find ourselves lost in our smart phones, multiple Apple devices, and E-Book readers. Out with the old and in with the new has its time and place, but Bartleby’s closing signifies an era of the city that is increasingly fading from the cityscape, becoming harder and harder to find.
“You’re always as good as your last buy,” says Thomson, who will continue the business with his wife through their website (bartlebysbooks.com) and by appointment.
The store will be open Monday – Sunday through July 2. For more information call (202) 298-0486.