Mapping Georgetown: Emily Durso at the Francis Scott Key Book Shop (Part II)

In our April 3 Mapping Georgetown Story “Where Will Georgetown Take You?”Emily Durso painted a beautiful picture of growing up in Georgetown and Rose Park and she shared with us her fascinating background. We wanted to know more about Emily’s priceless story on the internationally legendary bookstore, the Francis Scott Key Book Shop, located at the corner of 28th and O Streets. So we followed up.

If you’re a reader and a follower of Louise Penny the award-winning author who recently co-wrote a book with Hillary Clinton, “State of Terror”, you have a picture in your mind of a unique Canadian Village — Three Pines — and the character Myrna Landers. Penny takes the reader to a place so much like the image of the Francis Scott Key Book Shop , yet in another place in time.

This is a Mapping Georgetown exclusive. It’s very personal. And the kind of story that makes our public history project so special.

Emily Durso’s Mapping Georgetown Story, Part II:

In the 1930s, two women decided to open a book store and until the late 1980s it was run by Martha C. Johnson “Marty.”

This was a world that no longer exists. First, the staff knew all the clients and the clients knew all the staff.  Book Publishers’ ‘reps’ came at least twice a year with the LIST for the coming season. This was always more exciting than Christmas to see all the new books coming from Random House, Farrah Strauss, Princeton, Holt. etc.  Every single day at 3, tea was served to the staff and any one in the shop including the Postman or UPS driver. Always Marty had made homemade cookies.

The customers were a unique mix. Most were people who lived in the neighborhood, but what a list of people. Joe Alsop was down the street on Dumbarton. Every summer he came in and bought two boxes of books to be shipped to his summer place, as did many of our well-healed customers. A lot of customers were in the foreign service or overseas agencies and shipped books all over the world to their grandchildren, one reason we had a robust children’s book department. Other clients were members of Congress, Supreme Court, famous authors like Herblock or Averell Harriman and for them we held book signing parties with cheap wine and cheese and crackers. My favorite client was Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Every Friday afternoon, no matter the weather, her ancient black limo pulled up and though she was easily in her late 70s, her driver was even older than she. She stood in front of the desk, asked what was new to read, told us what she liked and didn’t like from last week’s batch, exchanged some gossip, was totally irreverent and then got her 5-6 books for the coming week. My favorite line of all time came from Alice: “If you have nothing good to say about anybody, come sit by me”!

The unknown prop that kept this bookstore afloat, a store that would order any book published in the world for its clients and ship anywhere, not a profitable business plan, were the “Government Accounts. Every week, the libraries of the CIA, State Department and NSA hand delivered a list of books they wanted. NSA was very much into technical books on every imaginable aspect of war and technology. Both State and CIA were a varying amalgam of novels, technical books and non fiction. This steady full profit set of clients kept this store open. It also caused my home phone to be tapped when I started studying Chinese History and ordering things from China Books and Periodicals! Apparently the Federal Government had procurement rules that they had to use three vendors. Over the years Francis Scott Key was their longest term vendor for the simple reason we kept our mouth shut and NEVER leaked their orders to the press as others did.

The most memorable for me was being asked to order 30 copies of a book by a new writer from Russia, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Going direct to the book publisher in Paris, I ordered the 30 books in Russian and then drove to Dulles to literally wait on the tarmac to receive the box. The Agency picked them up within hours of my getting back to the book store. Only later I realized who he was and the significance of picking up his very first printing.

What was my role?  I had been working since 15 at Rose Raynor Beauty Salon on Wisconsin Avenue and Volta. My Father was very much against his daughter working after school and on Saturday but finally gave in and said he would find me a job – which he did, he sold insurance to Rose Raynor and she took me to answer phones and wash towels. Only, one day I came home and told my parents over dinner that Mrs. Raynor’s husband, who was so polite and kind to me, came in once a week and sat on the phone for an hour writing numbers in a steno book.  I never saw my Mother laugh that hard – Rose Raynor was a front for the Numbers! That was the end of that job! So I wandered into FSK …

Emily Durso graced this poster from The Francis Scott Key Book Shop in the 1960s. Courtesy Emily Durso.


2 comments on “Mapping Georgetown: Emily Durso at the Francis Scott Key Book Shop (Part II)”

  • Peggy White says:

    Delightful stories! I lived on Dumbarton Avenue, and then R Street in the 60s. Interesting times!

  • Paulette Feltus says:

    I used to work at the book store after school and in the summers 1979 (?) until 1982… Ib still think fondly of Marty and all the other staff… if Emily remembers me, I hope we can connect…I think we met a few times…

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