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It’ll take more than corporate muscle to crush Phil Levy’s Bridge Street Books. Sandwiched between a menswear shop and the Cafe Cafe Ice Cream Parlor on M Street NW, the tiny Georgetown store celebrated its 20th anniversary in June, despite the arrival of the Barnes & Noble juggernaut in 1996. Still, it hasn’t been easy. Sales dipped the first year after the chain arrived on M Street, climbed back the second, dipped again in Year 3, and have rebounded again this past year. As Levy wryly notes, if his family didn’t own the building, those troughs would have put the store down for the count.
The loss to Washington wouldn’t have been just a carefully chosen selection of serious books, however. Loyal customers would have been deprived of what might be regarded as Bridge Street Book’s unique selling point: abuse.
That was the one word that rose above all other plaudits at the shop’s recent anniversary party. The 56-year-old Levy—’60s campus radical, sometime manager of the old Key movie theater in Georgetown (owned by his brother), brief Rolling Stone reporter (he wrangled an exclusive interview with the Band’s Robbie Robertson), Ralph Nader hack (on the impeach-Nixon campaign), Jewish intellectual, Trivial Pursuit meister, and bibliophile (his father suggested he become a bookseller after he was left waiting outside Blackwell’s bookstore in Oxford, England, for six hours)—has a rapier wit.
And friends and customers have come to revere his good-natured harangues. “Where else can you be insulted so cleverly?” asks Stephanie George, a local part-time artist. A beaming Michael Goldstein, past president of the Washington Jewish Historical Society, notes, “I’m a loyal customer who comes here for abuse,” he says.
Rod Smith, an avant-garde poet and publisher of the journal Ariel, is the store’s other full-time employee, manning the shop in the evenings and taking responsibility for the store’s book selections (especially strong, as you might expect, in poetry). A small part-time student staff holds down the fort on weekends.
As Levy’s old friend Ron Maranian notes, the Georgetown that the two grew up in was “Washington’s Greenwich Village”—albeit on a small scale. When banter subsides and the partygoers head home, the scale grows smaller. Just as Greenwich Village is vanishing under the weight of new money, it’s a different Georgetown outside. But Levy and Smith have no plans to disappear: They’re putting their inventory into electronic form and making forays onto the Internet. “It’s not enough to simply own the building,” says Levy. “Being stupid and stubborn, I’ve spent a long time in creating this, and I’d like it to survive a little longer.” —Trevor Butterworth