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In the early ’90s, bookstore chains thought they had invented the great antidote to sluggish sales: coffee. Borders and Barnes & Noble revamped the chain hell, opening vast libraries filled with comfy chairs, a whole lot of forest-green paint, and the ever-important espresso bar. This new bibliophile landscape aimed at turning every strip mall into the next Bloomsbury. But let’s face it: $3 cappuccinos can’t transform a giant box into a writer’s colony.
When Vertigo Books opened its doors nine years ago, the owners adopted the same rhetoric as the chains—only they achieved their goal: offering a creative space that endorsed all political persuasions. And they didn’t have to sell drinks.
So as news spread quietly last week—by word of mouth, of course—that Vertigo would soon be closing its shop just south of Dupont Circle and possibly heading to College Park, customers didn’t take it lightly. This is a store that made its mark not just for what it sold but for what it offered—countless readings, from Toni Morrison to Howard Zinn; the spectacle of Stanley Crouch and the late local poet Gaston Neal almost coming to blows; regular schlubs playing Meet the Press.
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To regulars, the news feels like betrayal—like getting to the end of Norman Mailer’s 1,191-page Harlot’s Ghost and finding a “To be continued.” Customer Norman Peters is blunt: “Oh boy, will we survive?” Another, clearly pissed, asks simply: “Why you all doing that?”
The details of the impending move are still subject to revision. According to store owner Bridget Warren, Vertigo’s building is currently up for sale and the store’s lease did not get renewed last year. Although Vertigo has received a temporary lease extension, Warren and co-owner and husband Todd Stewart have decided to get off their landlord’s remainder shelf and actively seek a new home. The thinking right now is that College Park will be the store’s destination; when they will sign a new lease and eventually move, Warren says, remains uncertain.
“We’re sad to see them go,” says Mitch Brown, general manager of Kramerbooks, just down the street. “They are strong in areas we’re not—just simply the world outside North America. It’s frightening.”
Warren isn’t frightened, just anxious about keeping her patrons coming—wherever the store may be. “Hopefully, we’ve served as a forum for people to meet and discuss things with authors,” Warren says. “We would continue to serve in that same spirit no matter where we were located.” —Jason Cherkis
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