The subject of the two waiters’ argument in the Ernest Hemingway short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is an old man who drinks late each night at their cafe. They know the man is wealthy but has tried to kill himself. “He’s lonely,” one waiter says. “I’m not lonely. I have a wife waiting in bed for me.”…

“This old man is clean,” the second waiter parries. “He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk. Look at him.”

They debate kicking the man out. The first waiter, who is young, wants to close fast and go to his wife. “I am of those who like to stay late at the cafe. With all those who do not want to go to bed,” replies his older colleague. “With all those who need a light for the night….It is not only a question of youth and confidence, although those things are very beautiful. Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the cafe.”

Hemingway’s world looks beautiful in the mind’s eye. But the closest thing to his cafe for today’s rich and sad and lonely appears to be a place with as much atmosphere as a box of detergent. It’s an accident. A fluke. A living, organically sprouted wonder in the belly of the corporate whale.

It’s the Barnes & Noble Cafe in the Barnes & Noble Booksellers superstore in Georgetown—an odd place that with coffee and scones serves a nightly social function and works out to be the oddest of refinements to the punishment of solitude in the anonymous big city. But you’d better come alone. It’s not a place you want to show your friends.

Some people show up looking for love. “Sure, every now and then I see some belted kingfisher waiting for some delectable piece of food to wander across the horizon,” says Larry Birns, 69, who lives nearby and estimates he’s in the cafe three nights a week. “I would have done the same in my day.”

The truth is, though, that even among the students—and nightly there is a whole squadron of them, with laptops, cell phones, and spinning silver CD players—no one leaves with anyone else. They wish an unsordid meat market would be discovered here. But instead, there are only roving eyes and the sounds of young voices that talk about it instead of having it. No first lines here. Kingfishers don’t feed.

With 185,000 titles by everyone from Anselm to Zamyatin, this place is—for the literate, established, and alone—their own local lost Library of Alexandria. The draw is what all the other hollow late-night wannabe cafe owners in this city have overlooked; they don’t even know what soul is. This is a mere Clean, Well-Lighted Place—the bare, but very rich, essentials.

The night I introduce myself to Birns, he shows me his name in one of the day’s papers. In his day job, he is the director of a nonprofit organization that deals with international affairs. Almost half the evenings of the week he’s at the cafe with the other human seat warmers and one of those ubiquitous tall paper disposable beakers that pass for cups, letting another day in the life trickle away into the not-so-late night.

The assembled regulars spend prime time away from the idiot box. But there’s something odd about their gathering: They don’t gather. They don’t talk. They don’t know each other and only seldom greet one another. This company store is not a Cheers stand-in. Besides their brains, this cafe’s cast members have only their proximity at the dozen-and-a-half tables to unite them.

Along with Birns is the chess player. He sits with a vinyl board unrolled in front of him, waiting for anyone who will play. Some nights, he’s very well dressed—a houndstooth sports coat well-cut over a bright green button-down shirt one evening. Other nights, he’s unshaven, clad in sweats and sneakers. After he mates opponents, he advises them on their game. And when he’s not playing, he sits bent over the board, chin in hand. Other times he waits patiently. When he leaves the cafe, he goes up to the third floor and stands in front of the chess books.

Birns says he’s here because it’s a good cafe. It’s as simple as good service. He can work here, and he does. But why exchange the porcelain mug at home for the paper disposable here? Because of all the distractions there, he says, citing a certain Jack Russell terrier and a teenage daughter.

“Every literate soul wants to write a mystery someday,” Birns volunteers. He believes that writing one would provide a way of creating order out of chaos. “I muse about that when I’m here. Looking for plots.”

Birns looks literary. He is almost a dead ringer for Norman Mailer. Half-frames slip down his nose. Flannel shirts and corduroy pants hang loosely on him—a portrait of the comfortable dishevelment that comes with good-quality couches, old family memories, and vestibules just inside the front door. Never absent, however, is his self-mocking levity: “I had [a significant congressional and Catholic personality] over for dinner, at my fashionable Georgetown mansion…”

There are frequent gems in his tales: staying in a monastery in Lima, for example, and holding a forum where Malcolm X spoke in the early ’60s. “When he got behind the podium he said, ‘These honkies. We’ve got swing, we’ve got beat. Don’t believe their sweet talk.’ This was, of course, a group trying to bring the races together. It was six weeks’ work down the drain. That was when I was a young political science professor.”

The only places on earth that have true cafe culture, says Leslie Boone, who is often here four or five nights a week (other weeks not at all), “are Paris and Zagreb.” Zagreb is great because Boone remembers sitting with friends in cafes there, she says, gossiping and watching Croatian novelists pass by on the street.

Boone is on leave from a graduate program in literature, taking a paralegal course, and working on a novel. She always has a changing stack of unpurchased books piled on her table: Giacometti: A Biography or Caravaggio: A Passionate Life, some coffee-table interior-design books, Expert Legal Writing, the The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus, and heaps upon heaps of literary and poetry criticism.

Boone is no coffeehouse gasbag. She is the type of nonprofessional intellectual without whom the whole self-important tower of people who write for status or dollars would be a groundless oblivion of academic consumerism. Two inches of gravel-colored hair push out the fringes of her thin, blond locks, and the earpieces of her gold eyeglass frames weave between the wispy strands. She squints with a tight forehead when she reads and takes notes. Some nights she wears earplugs. Even in conversation she doesn’t smile. Not even for jokes.

Often she walks out to the shelves and then back in with a new 5-inch stack of books in her hand. On her way back from the restroom she browses at the “Intellectual Pursuits” table. But she’s equally attracted to her nightly pile of glossy magazines. She takes plenty of breaks to riffle through The Face, Bomb, Harper’s Bazaar, Architectural Digest, and New York.

Most nights when she is here, Boone is the very last person to leave the cafe. She wishes it were open later into the night. “On exam nights,” she says, “I could see spending all night here.”

Boone sits down to chat at 8 and stays there until closing, at 11. In the meantime, she hits Habermas, tarot cards, Paul Bowles, Gore Vidal, Bowie, Borges, Balzac, Gordon Lish, Salinger, Robert Johnson, Christopher Ricks, Mailer, Kafka, Harold Bloom, Derrida, Lionel Trilling, Didion, John Gregory Dunne, Shakespeare, Chaucer.

Laced into the conversation are references to highbrow late-night public-television talk shows. Many of her other references involve Bob Dylan. Boone worships Bob Dylan. We talk Bob. “If Dylan’s not your god,” she advises, “then you haven’t really understood him.” Other times her adoration isn’t religious, but artistic. “I am so lucky to be alive at this time,” she says, “when I can see this genius performing,” and compares it to living at the time of Shakespeare.

For her “true” religion, Boone identifies herself as a Buddhist. But out on the dark sidewalk after closing, unable to stop our conversation before we go different directions, she suddenly counsels me: “If you really committed yourself, and if you really wanted, you could convert yourself.” Convert myself? Convert to what? “To Bob,” she replies.

There are nights when Birns is not sitting by himself at the cafe. Friends and workers from his office meet him for coffee, and there is an international kind of politeness and charm to their gathering around a four-sided table. Birns holds court and tells stories, sometimes standing up to act out scenes, turning sideways and rotating his arms to mime running.

Later, alone at a table, it’s not hard to get him philosophical. “Like any bright man, I’m rather dissatisfied with my lot,” he says.

Birns aspires to be a writer. To write, he says, “is a maraschino cherry,” on top of life, “the delectable” to savor at the hard end. It is “the Calvinist’s dessert,” the reward of the blessed. He pinches his fingers together before his puckering mouth and adds: “Writing is the definitive hallmark of being authentic and talented. Even a billionaire actually feels awkward in front of a reputed writer.”

Twice I ask him if any of his desired mystery thriller plots have occurred to him. Each time he avoids answering. “But what about you?” he demands, shaking his hands in the air between us. “That notebook is your downfall,” he says, adding that I fill it with months of idle cafe observations instead of writing worthy works. I know, I say, and add that I think of these things every night while I wait for sleep. Suddenly, all his energy leaves him. He drops his hands, takes a deep breath through his nose, and rocks back on his stool. Exhaling again, he nods once, and we are silent.

Birns hates it when the cafe starts to close. Out of self-respect he tries to leave before the one-half-hour-left announcement comes over the PA system, and he winces as if he’s been busted when we talk too long and it comes. He wishes the place were open later.

As I work close to deadline, I hear him quoted on the radio news.

Of 520 Barnes & Noble superstores nationwide, 358 currently have cafes like this one. But the corporate rubber stamp is no golden seal. “I think we’d have people there all night, considering the Georgetown clientele,” says Brad George, district manager of eight Barnes & Noble Booksellers stores in Northern Virginia and D.C. “It wouldn’t work in Fairfax.”

Why it works so well for D.C.’s nightly loners remains a mystery even to them. “I don’t know why I come here,” muses a regular who has Adams Jobs Almanac 1999 on the table in front of him. “It’s so far from my house.”

The chess player wishes not to be interviewed. “No” is his only word in response to my request, but his nightly greetings are flawlessly kind and polite.

“They can be alone without being alone,” says Claudia Thiel, of Bonn, Germany, of the regulars. “It’s better than at the depressing house….I come here just to do something.” Thiel is on vacation in Washington, but for four nights straight she has read a photo-illustrated coffee-table book of the history of the 20th century, putting it back on the shelf every night at closing.

Boone, meanwhile, stays bent over her books until the chairs are upside down on the tables next to hers. She never looks up at the sound of the workers cleaning up for the night. But now she’s the last one out onto M Street. Clutching her coat around her neck with a small fist, she walks slowly away. CP