Last month, Politics & Prose debuted its Espresso Book Machine, which lets patrons print out-of-print, hard-to-find, or custom books in minutes. Dubbed Opus, it’s the most noticeable change at the independent bookstore since Lissa Muscatine and Bradley Graham purchased the place in the spring. It looks, alas, like an office copier mating with a storage freezer.

OK, big deal—the thing ain’t pretty. But if a brick-and-mortar bookstore doesn’t have a sense of aesthetics these days, what does it have? Booksellers have been brutalized by Amazon and e-books; the roll call of dead D.C.-area bookstores in recent years includes Karibu, Vertigo, Olsson’s, Presse, Candida’s, and two Borders outlets. Politics & Prose owes its continued existance, in part, to things you can get only by walking through its doors—the writer events, the café in the basement, the smart staff’s attentive recommendations.
Opus is pitched as part of that community-service strategy: For a fee, local self-publishers can have their works sold on its shelves. But writers can self-publish anywhere, and the inherent power of Politics & Prose’s shelves has been that not just anybody gets on them—they’re curated with a mind toward featuring worthy books in a limited space. Opus is novel, but its service is one any online retailer can provide. The thing may bring a few looky-loos through the door, but its presence means the store is literally giving ground to something that makes it less special.