Reading the local book scene

The best independent bookstores in the area

By Holly Adams

Since the Barnes & Noble in Bethesda Row — a staple of the Bethesda downtown area — closed its doors in Jan. 2018, many community members have missed having a local bookstore. To replace these larger chains when they close, independent bookstores have grown in popularity, with sales growing an average of 7.5% over the last five years, according to the American Booksellers Association. Independent bookstores around the D.C. area offer more community-oriented spaces to relax, read and browse unique finds that are unavailable at large chain bookstores. 


Kensington Row Bookshop

In 2002, Elisenda Sola-Sole (‘78) opened the Kensington Row Bookshop to create a space where people in the community could come together and be around books, she said. The Kensington Row Bookshop carries mostly used books and is in the epicenter of a vibrant community on Kensington’s Antique Row: an eclectic area with antique shops, gift shops, art galleries and restaurants. 

From poetry to historical fiction to cookbooks, Kensington Row Bookshop offers a wide selection of used books along with journals, posters, old postcards and greeting cards made by local artists for sale.

As a part of her community outreach efforts, Sola-Sole provides two spaces where outside groups — such as the history books club, the philosophy club and the weekly meditative journaling workshop — can meet on the upper level. These groups use these spaces for free, but many return the favor by donating books to the store. Sola-Sole also hosts the monthly Kensington Row Poetry Series, an open mic event where community members can share poetry, on the lower level of her store.

“It’s a way of reaching out to the community , bringing the community in, and offering the experience of writing and reading in a creative space,” Sola-Sole said. “In return, the community is very supportive of the shop.”

The Catalan Library, a room filled with books in Catalan, is very special to Sola-Sole and her family who are from Catalonia, Spain. She decorated the room with quotes in Catalan and a replica of the Sagrada Família cathedral in Barcelona. Surrounding a circular table at the center of the room are shelves of books that her family has accumulated. The wide selection of books aren’t for sale but are available for customers to read in this special room. 

Inspired by Catalan tradition, Sola-Sole organizes an annual Kensington Day of the Book Festival on Antique Row, a combination of the Festival of the Rose and the Day of the Book. For this event, she invites the whole community to come together and visit with local authors, watch cookbook demonstrations and hear live music.

 The festival brings nearby bookstores in Kensington together; Sola-Sole finds it important that independent bookstores stick together because “they each have their own personality,” she said. It’s why she has a list of all the local bookstores at the front of her store, she said. 

“It’s important for bookstores to support each other because I don’t see other bookstores as competition: I see them as complementing my shop,” Sola-Sole said. “Bookstores are very different, we can’t all have the same books. Rather than send people to shop online, we should send people to other bookstores so that we can all support each other.”

Sola-Sole said that she learns a lot from her customers when they ask her for certain authors or subjects that lead to conversations about the customer’s interests, like their travels if they’re looking for a travel guide. She learns just as much from her customers as she does from the books in her store, Sola-Sole said.

“One thing about working with books is you realize how much there’s to know and how little you actually know,” she said. “There’s so much to learn every day.”


Bonjour Books D.C.

Walking into Bonjour Books D.C. — only a few stores down from the Kensington Row Bookshop — you’re greeted with the sounds of Paris as Yves Montand, a famous French singer, serenades customers through the small radio on the front desk. Jennifer Fulton, a fluent French speaker, opened the quaint French bookstore in April after she realized that her son, who was learning French, had little access to French literature in the D.C. area. 

A little sign reads: “Your favorite characters speak French!” under translated copies of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “Harry Potter.From children’s books to rare books about music and theatre, Bonjour Books offers a taste of France in a space that Fulton designed to encourage appreciation of international cultures. Learning French can be a gateway to learning about so many other cultures that also come from French speaking regions, said Fulton, who met her husband who is originally from Morocco because they both spoke French. 

Bonjour Books is a place where anyone can go to practice their French skills while immersing themselves in the culture and a place where prospective American tourists can find a travel guide in English for a trip to France. For many, it’s a “chance to make a connection and not be on a screen,” Fulton said. 

Fulton believes that independent books stores are a great way to build community, especially among smaller groups, like the French community in the D.C. area.

“People need to come and connect on a human level,” Fulton said. “Every customer that comes in here, you make a connection with, and you have a wonderful experience of just talking about literature or life. There’s just nothing like that.”


Second Story Books


The smooth jazz music playing in Second Story Books in Dupont Circle creates a cozy and inviting setting that draws in customers to explore the world without stepping foot outside of the store.

In Second Story Books, customers can browse the large selection of books covering regions across the globe. Yellow tabs signal a new subregion that readers can explore, from South Asia to the Carribean. For escapist readers, there are shelves filled with fantasy, mystery and all types of fiction.

Second Story Books is one of the few antiquarian bookshops — stores with used and rare books — in D.C. which Stefan Giglio, who has worked there for about a year and a half, said gives the store more character. The store has two locations: one in Dupont Circle and another in Rockville. Along with copies and volumes of historic and rare books, Second Story Books also sells historical artifacts, which they receive from donors, that include everything from fragments of Mediterranean pottery from the first century to 19th century watercolor and yearbooks from Bob Dylan’s high school years. 

Michael Wilpers, a frequent customer, said he loves used bookstores so much that one might call it an “addiction.” While studying for his masters degree in music, he relied on various used bookstores to find rare music history volumes that were either unavailable at large chain bookstores or were simply less expensive. Second Story Books is one of his favorite locations because of the rare selection of books — especially the large selection of unusual music books — and its prime location in Dupont Circle.                        

“You can find things here that you didn’t even know existed,” Wilpers said.


Kramer Books 


In case you’re in need of a fresh new book in the middle of the night, Kramer Books is open until 1 a.m. on weekdays and 3 a.m. on weekends to cater to their customer’s literary needs at all hours. Because it’s open during “bar hours,” Kramer has become a part of the D.C. nightlife scene, bringing in much different crowds at night than during the day.  

Equipped with a bar and cafe in store, Kramer Books is a lively and busy shop that has been an essential component of the Dupont Circle community since 1976. When it opened, it was the first store in D.C. to serve as a bookstore and cafe.

Kailyn Middlemist heard about the bookstore all the way from Montana and decided to work here when she came to Georgetown University for graduate school. She previously worked at Barnes & Noble where she felt that she couldn’t be herself because she always had to represent the large company. She enjoys the freedom of wearing whatever she wants to work and working with fellow progressive colleagues like herself at Kramer, she said.

“There’s a storied history of being in Dupont,” Middlemist said. “It’s a very LGBT-friendly place and Kramer’s tries to be a part of that which makes it unique.”

Kramer’s has the perfect gifts for any book-obsessed friend or family member. Along with their large selection of novels and biographies, customers can purchase Lewis Caroll mugs, Virginia Woolf candles and socks that say “dangerous women read.”

Although Kramer Books sells recent and popular books, it also has a unique and personal touch, including a “Snow Day stories” list posted in the entrance with recommendations from the staff of the best books to enjoy on a relaxing snow day.

Pierce Carter, a student at George Washington University, keeps coming back to Kramer Books because it feels “homey,” he said.

“It has a nice atmosphere, and they usually have what I’m looking for,” Carter said. “It’s nice to be around people who know good books I could look at.”


Politics and Prose

Politics and Prose has been a destination for book lovers in D.C. since it opened on Connecticut Avenue in 1984. Along with endless shelves of books covering almost every topic of interest to Washingtonians, Politics and Prose is the only place you can find “Impeachmint” flavored chapstick and Ruth Bader Ginsburg socks as well as the latest political biography or fantasy novel.

Politics and Prose has expanded to two more locations, at the Wharf in 2017 and Union Market in 2018. The original location on Connecticut Ave. is a bustling place on weekends, with customers ranging from college students to families with young children and elderly couples.

The upstairs is a large space with a wide variety of book genres along with CDs, DVDs and tons of buttons advocating for every liberal cause imaginable. Downstairs, a large multi-room section of children’s books offers reading nooks only large enough for small children to curl up in with a good story. Adjacent to the children’s area is The Den: a lively cafe for customers to catch up with friends over a cup of coffee or enjoy a dish from an extensive menu of pastries, sandwiches and toasts. 

Along with providing a large selection of new books, between its three locations Politics and Prose has hosted over 1,000 in-store events for authors to interact with the community. The store has attracted many well-known authors and speakers including J.K. Rowling, Pete Buttigieg and Bill Clinton. 

Sales representative Sly Samudre decided to work at Politics and Prose because, as an avid reader, he enjoys being able to talk to customers about literature and being surrounded by books. 

“You get to interact with all the books,” Samudre said. “More books than you ever really need, but all the books you ever wanted.”