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Book Browsing in Washington DC

abstract:Visiting the Nation's Capital is an awe-inspiring experience. Bookbuffet president and founder, Paula Shackleton, spent some time taking in the sights and taking the literary pulse of our nation's capitol.


June 05, 2003
— "Conceived by Pierre-Charles L'Enfant, a young Frenchman who had been a member of George Washington's army staff, the baroque scheme is a rectangular street grid with broad diagonal avenues radiating from ceremonial circles and squares from two fundamental structures, the White House and the Capital."


One is immediately struck by the absence of high-rise office buildings—a result of the height restriction act of 1910. Instead, massive pillared and domed architechture span whole blocks amidst wide, tree lined avenues named after States, crisscrossing alphabet streets. Reminiscent of the old-world grandeur of London and Paris; indeed Washington was the first major planned city in the United States.


I spent a day visiting the mall, monuments, museums, and government buildings which house much of the nation’s history & treasures—then headed out to get a sense of the literary pulse.


First stop, the Library of Congress, "a massive structure, its three buildings house some 100 million items, including the papers of 23 US presidents, along 535 miles of bookshelves. The permanent rotating exhibition displays America’s most significant items, such as a copy of Lincoln’s hand written draft of the Gettysburg Address. Start with the 20 minute film in the ground floor visitors office. Anyone with photo ID can register for a library card. The library catalogue is also online, though many of the old card cataloge entries have been overlooked. LC initiated a re-design of this popular website in 2001."


Lunch at an outdoor café, Signatures, at 801 Pennsylvania Avenue, next to the FBI building, afforded superlative cuisine (the chef is rated one of the top in the city) amidst conservative suited government employees and lobbyists enjoying their meals and a sunny respite from a month long stretch of rainy weather. Returning that evening was a totally different scene—more on that later.


Strolling along, next stop: Capital Hill Books on 657 Hill Street, SE at 7th Street. The book store sells quality used books ranging from poetry to philosophy to, what else, politics. Its "big" book for the season is the subject of this morning's USA Today front page: Hilary Rodham Clinton’s memoirs, Living History, on-sale June 9th. Her publisher, Simon & Shuster, is printing an unprecedented 1 million copies—an almost unheard-of number for a non-fiction book, especially one that is 576 pages long and costs $28.


To quote from the newspaper: “Political and industry insiders say the book is surprisingly revealing. Hilary tackles tough topics such as her failed health proposal, the independent counsels who investigated her and her husband for six years, and yes, former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. …Clinton's fans are hoping that the book will be, at least in part, a blueprint for a national campaign.”


It’s interesting to note that First Lady biographies have historically sold better than their Presidential husbands! This former first lady received an $8 million advance for her memoir. Hillary Clinton’s other books include:

Browsing through the book section of the nation's paper of record, The Washington Post, reveals that local tastes lean to political and contemporary issues. For author signings around town, check out the Literary Calendar; as you'd expect, provocative perspectives on past and current issues facing the country. This week...

  • The Washington Post Book Club is reading The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. The story is about the nationalistic movement that culminated in Italy's unification.
  • Former NSA director William E. Odom, author of Fixing Intelligence: For a More Secure America, and CIA official James Simon Jr. offer different views on "Keeping America Safe: The Debate About 'Fixing' U.S. Intelligence" at the International Spy Museum, 800 F St. NW. Admission is $13; call (202) 393-7798 or Ticketmaster at (800) 551-SEAT to RSVP.
  • Kenneth T. Walsh, White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, discusses Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and Their Planes in a Smithsonian Associates program at the Hirshhorn Museum, Ring Auditorium, Seventh St. & Independence Ave. SW. Tickets are $20 for nonmembers; call (202) 357-3030 to RSVP.
  • George Plimpton discusses the new anthology, The Paris Review Book, at Olsson's-Metro Center, (202) 347-3686.

A subway ride away is Dupont Circle, the most cosmopolitan of DC neighborhoods where Kramerbooks is located (1517 Connecticut Street). Emerging from an incredible depth, one is immediately at the center of this so-called "affluent gay community" with shops, cafes, bars, and brownstone apartments.


Kramerbooks and its in-store restaurant Afterwards, is a popular locals spot for eating, book browsing, and people watching. They have live music 4-5 nights a week. Owned by three patrons, one of whom is the namesake, the trio opened both the café and the book store together back in 1976. Their motto, “We stock what sells”. They don’t take orders, they don’t do signings or author readings, they don’t cater to book groups—regardless this is a happening place. In fact, the line to the café threading through the store allows patrons to browse the stacks while they wait. You know their book buying has been a success when you can say that each stack has something new to pique your interest as well as those from your “favorites” list and “always wanted to read” list.


What are Washington residents reading?  According to the staff at Kramerbooks, “Most everything the rest of the nation reads…we’re pushing our personal favorite: Shutter Island: A Novel." The mystery-thriller by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, 2001, is currently being filmed by Clint Eastwood) is another blistering page-turner. It's 1954, and U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule arrive at a small island in Massachusetts' Outer Harbor. It is home to Ashcliffe Hospital, a federal institution for the criminally insane, and one of the patients has escaped...


After a short stop back to the hotel to freshen up, it’s over to Georgetown for dinner and a stroll.  Am I imagining this or do all Washington cab drivers listen to CSPAN? 


In many restaurants throughout DC, patrons are familiar with top government officials and their bevy of secret security guards frequenting their haunts. I hear tonight it’s Alan Greenspan and guests in the private salon room. But unlike Los Angeles, where celebrities can be spotted in the course of living their lives, you become poignantly aware of the security concerns for these public servants during these code orange and code yellow days.


Back at Signatures, after dark, the establishment has been taken over, shoulder to shoulder, by suits—blue suited government workers, congressmen, and a very few young women, all appear to be taking their workday over-time in this work hard/play hard atmosphere. Come on guys, it’s 9:30 on “Tuesday, the new Friday” atmosphere. You can sense the power, intrigue, and strategizing going on; sculpting policy and garnering influence.


Well, it’s time to head back to sunny California… Now the big question is, should I decorate at least my bathroom in the red, white, and blue formal motifs ubiquitous in DC? NOT!


Movies Set in Washington DC:

  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
  • The More the Merrier (1943)
  • Born Yesterday (1950)
  • Damn Yankees (1958)
  • Dr. Strangelove (1962)
  • All The President's Men (1976)
  • Being There (1979)
  • JFK (1991)
  • Patriot Games (1992)
  • The American President (1995)
  • AirForce One (1997)
  • Wag the Dog (1997)
  • The Contender (2000)

Guide book quotes from Time Out Washington, DC, Penguin Books, 2001

by Paula Shackleton




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