America’s most literate city, Washington is richly blessed with an abundance of new, used, and speciality bookstores. So many, in fact, that we can put together a proper top 25. So leave your Kindlenook e-bullshit at the door. Here are Washington’s best brick and mortar bookstores:
- Icon and Book Service, Brookland
Run by the Monastery of the Holy Cross at Catholic University, the Icon and Book service is a convenient stop on the road to heaven. Stocked with abstruse religious texts and the best-priced icons in town, it’s an answered prayer for the District’s dogmatic Catholics. Now if only they’d let women work there.
- Red Onion Records and Books, Admo/DuPont
Known mostly as a holdout independent record store, Red Onion also has a few shelves of used books that the friendly owner, Josh, often gives away for free.
23. Reiter’s, Foggy Bottom/Downtown
Reiter’s is a cafe and a passport processing service that happens to have a few shelves of books along the perimeter. They sell mostly new non-fiction releases about economics, politics, and world affairs, so it’s basically a wretchedly poor man’s World Bank InfoShop.
22. AIA Store, Foggy Bottom/Downtown
Housed in the lobby of the American Institute of Architects’ ironic brutalist headquarters, the AIA Store sells mostly cards and design-themed gifts. But don’t overlook their built environment book selection, the largest range of architecture and urban planning titles in the city.
21. Books-A-Million, DuPont Circle
With a wider magazine and book selection than most grocery stores, Books-A-Million is DuPont’s go-to for a People and a coffee.
20. Tempo Books, Tenleytown
Dubbed “language nerd heaven” on Yelp, Tenleytown’s Tempo Bookstore is the DMV’s leading source for language learning titles.
- Middle East Books and More, Admo/Dupont
They certainly fulfill their promise of books about the Middle East, and at really cheap prices. But the More is what’s coolest about this store; Palestinian-made gifts abound. Arts and crafts, fine ceramics, and beautiful textiles are among the highlights of Middle East Books and More’s inventory, but best of all is their Levantine olive oil and olive oil soap.
- Barnes and Noble, Metro Center
This publically-traded Moleskine seller sports a few racks of impulse-buy books by the counter, next to the M&Ms.
- US Government Bookstore, Union Station
Conservatives can bitch all they want about the size of the US Government Bookstore, but this is the spot for all your favorite federal government publications. Buying a copy of the U.S. Coast Guard Incident Management Handbook 2014 for that special seaman in your life? Or maybe you just bought a rowhouse in Bloomingdale and want a new Protect Your Family From Lead in Your Home 2014. Look no further than the US Government Bookstore.
16. G Books, U Street
I think it’s heartening that a good old-fashioned gay bookstore can still turn a profit in 2015.
- Riverby Books, Capitol Hill
Though it’s never possessed quite the same whimsical charm as Capitol Hill Books, Riverby has been a quality, family-owned used book shop for years. So I was dismayed to see a sign on their door saying they were closed, and that they were trying to find which way is up, an ominous statement about the perils of brick and mortar bookselling in the digital age. Everyone wants a charming bookstore in their neighborhood, but few will patronize it enough to keep it afloat. Riverby is on hiatus indefinitely, but they still have an open location in Fredericksburg. Here’s hoping Riverby Books DC re-opens; I’ll keep their spot on this list just in case.
- Teaching For Change Bookstore @ Busboys and Poets, U Street
Langston Hughes would certainly be a fan of the leftist bookseller housed in the original Busboys and Poets restaurant on V & 14th. Their poetry selection may be the best in the city, and their Tuesday night open mics are compelling showcases of local talent. But what makes Teaching for Change so unique, and so valuable, is their emphasis on social justice pedagogy. They stock numerous children’s titles that highlight people of color, and carry a wide range of educational resources for teachers and organizers. Most cities can only dream of supporting a store like this.
- The Potter’s House, Adams Morgan
The Potter’s House on Columbia has found new life after a lengthy renovation. The new space is full of comfortable couches and comes with a cafe with good coffee and food. They specialize in liberal Christian theological titles, of all things, but I like their focus on ecology and sustainability, and that they showcase a lot of local writing.
- Idle Time Books, Adams Morgan
Tucked amongst Adams Morgan’s 18th street puke factories, Idle Time has a certain aesthetic charm, and it’s definitely a good browse. It’s a well organized used bookstore, its shelves broken into numerous sections as obscure as “Maritime Adventure.” I’m told their sociology and psychology sections are especially good. Beyond the books, they have a solid comic book selection, and everyone likes their wide assortment of cards. Best of all, they’re open until 10 pm, making it a great place to pre-game before you hit the bars.
11. World Bank InfoShop, Downtown
Located a block from the White House, the World Bank InfoShop is an oasis for international policy nerds. A deceptively large store with an impressive breadth of contemporary non-fiction titles, they have sections like trade, water, agriculture, human rights, Sub-Saharan Africa, the environment, population, and development, in addition to numerous business and economics titles. But what I like best about the InfoShop is their selection of contemporary international fiction, arguably the best in DC. That, and the fact that no one is ever in the store. There’s a comfortable little customer lounge in the back that’s always empty, providing a great spot to get away and read during the lunch hour.
- Carpe Librum, Downtown
A quaint little used bookshop off Farragut Square, Carpe Librum sells donated books for $1-$4. They’re a little smaller than Books for America and The Lantern, but it’s the same idea. Their classic novels section is robust and it’s a great spot for cheap coffee table art books. I’m not a huge fan of the watercolors and other crappy paintings they’re always hawking, but it’s cool to have a cheap used bookstore downtown amidst the Prets and Subways.
- The Lantern, Georgetown
The books are my least favorite part about The Lantern, a used bookstore whose proceeds benefit Bryn Mawr College. I love the little old lady who works the checkout desk, handwriting receipts in pencil on little slips of paper. The volunteers are all serious readers, more than happy to talk–and argue–about literature or politics with a customer. I get a kick out of the Georgetown clientele; the last time I stopped in, I saw a middle aged man in a seersucker suit and straw hat sitting on a chair, intently thumbing through a picture book of English gardens. The price is right, but the selection is merely serviceable. They can only fit so much in that narrow little P Street rowhouse.
- Upshur Street Books, Petworth
Upshur Street Books is Washington’s newest bookstore, and one of the gem’s of the Upshur Street renaissance. It suffers a bit from a small space and selection, but the staff is great, ready and willing to order whatever you need. Their lineup of readings has been impressive for such a new store, and their presence in Petworth is a major cultural boon .
- Second Story Books, DuPont Circle
With its sidewalk sales, its old book smell, and its well-loved antique prints and maps, Second Story is a classic used bookstore. They can’t quite compete with the bargain basement prices of Books for America, Carpe Librum, The Lantern, and Books Plus, and their fiction section is smaller than I’d like, but they’re the best shop in Washington for rare and antique books, and their non-fiction section is prodigious.
- The Library Store, Books Plus, Chinatown
Books Plus is an absolute gem, but due to its severely limited hours, most people never learn of its existence. Hidden in the lobby of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, they sell donated books for $1, $2, or $3 and use the proceeds to buy new library books. The rotating stock makes for a great browse; it’s easy to walk out with 10-20 books. But they’re only open from 12-4 on Tuesdays and from 11-3 on Wednesday through Friday, so for most, it’s a moot point.
5. Bridge Street Books, Georgetown
Tables full of discounted titles line the sidewalk in front of Georgetown’s Bridge Street Books. Tucked into a quiet, cozy space on M Street, the shop is packed with leftist monographs and literature, its walls covered in old-timey baseball posters and twee maps. Yes, Bridge Street Books has all the homey feel of a used bookstore. And yet, something seems askew. It doesn’t have that old book smell, for one. And the place is too well lit, too tidily organized, the jackets on the books too vivid. It hits you all at once: this is a new bookstore.
Buoyed by the handful of Georgetown professors who require their students to buy class books here, Bridge Street manages to survive, one $20+ title at a time. They stock the newest big-name fiction and current affairs releases, but what impresses me is their breadth. They have a wide offering of new poetry and literary criticism, now-niche categories relegated to single shelves in most shops, at best. Whether I buy a book or not, I tend to leave Bridge Street feeling optimistic; if they can get by selling expensive new books of poetry and philosophy, then there must be more readers out there than I think. That, or Bridge Street Books is an excellent front.
- Politics and Prose, Chevy Chase
Everyone knows Politics and Prose is Washington’s most prestigious bookseller. Their eminent speaker series is an unmatched cultural mainstay, and their selection of political and current affairs books–their speciality–is by far the best in Washington. So why is the darling of Washington book culture not tops on this list? For one, because political and current affairs books (like Bob Woodward’s topical tomes or the latest excretion by Mark Halperin) are the shittiest books of all, irrelevant as soon as they’re published, and usually nothing more than an insider amalgam of conventional wisdom and gossip. They are a waste of money, time, and most egregiously for P&P, space. I wouldn’t mind their abundant politics selection so much if they paid the same attention to prose. But their literature selection is paltry, comprised exclusively of the most famous books by the most famous authors, just like Barnes and Noble.
Secondly, this place is expensive, even for a new bookstore. The books are expensive, the coffee is expensive, the gifts are expensive, and the cars that the patrons drove to the store are expensive. Yes, tucked safely away in far Northwest Washington, P&P is simply too rich for my blood, and too status-oriented. It is not a place where I feel comfortable browsing at my leisure. It’s too crowded for that, too much of an event, a place to buy and be seen. In that sense, it really is Washington’s emblematic bookstore.
- Kramerbooks, DuPont
On the verge of its fortieth birthday, Kramerbooks remains the best new bookstore in Washington, and one of the jewels of DuPont Circle. The bookstore/bar/restaurant/cafe is a cultural melange, attracting all walks of Washingtonians, from the hoary old literati to millennials on clumsy first dates. They always have a wide assortment of new titles, and cram an impressive volume of them into their cramped space. Best of all, they’re open until 4am on weekends; when I get drunk in DuPont, I don’t end the night in Flippin Pizza, devouring slice after slice. No, I find myself in Kramerbooks, banging into tables, devouring the descriptions on the backs of Joan Didion and Jennifer Egan novels. I wake up in the morning with a headache, wondering what the hell I did last night. Then I see The Keep in a bag on the floor and I know everything’s going to be okay.
- Capitol Hill Books, Capitol Hill
Your trip to Eastern Market is incomplete without a stop-and-browse in Capitol Hill Books, an iconic used bookstore that’ll give any bibliophile a good buzz. What’s not to love? The store’s labyrinthine layout literally overflows with loosely-organized books like some mad genius’ personal library. It is #1 in Washington for books per square inch. Books stacked on the floor, books obscuring other books, books too high to reach. Books! You can find anything here, if you’re not looking for it.
But whatever you do, don’t try to walk in with a backpack like it’s no big deal. They don’t play that shit at Capitol Hill Books! The charmingly crotchety proprietors will make you take it off before you begin your journey into the recondite world of the printed word. And what a journey it will be!
- Books for America, West DuPont
Many people in bookstores are shopping for trinkets more than texts. They like the idea of books, but often conceive of them as something to own rather than something to read. I would love to see a statistic showing the percentage of all books bought in a store that are ultimately read by the buyer. If that was possible, I’d bet my entire Margaret Atwood collection that Books for America would be #1 in Washington.
It may seem strange to rank a smallish used bookstore ahead of a place like Kramerbooks or Politics and Prose. But for real, diehard readers, Books for America is the best place in town. They don’t have any frills, they don’t hold author talks, and they don’t sell a bunch of knick knack gifts. But no other bookstore in Washington can compete with their intersection of price and selection; they are the Trader Joe’s of books. I often find myself popping in after work to scan the new arrivals bin, spending happy hour buying $3 books instead of $3 beers. You can bring a twenty into Books for America and walk out with six or seven good titles. Six or seven! Their fiction selection is deeper and far more eclectic than Politics and Prose’s, but for fully one eighth the price. Their inventory rotates rapidly, and I’m always amazed by how many books they have that were published in the last few years. If you really love books, if you really love to read, you’ll find a haven in Books for America. And hey, it’s a charity too.