End of an Era

As downtown Bethesda’s Barnes & Noble closes, so goes the gathering place our community needs

Illustration by Anne Bentley

I’m searching my desk drawer for a Barnes & Noble gift card. I want to use it before the bookseller shutters its store in downtown Bethesda at the end of this year. I know the gift card is here somewhere. I remember my youngest niece giving it to me last Christmas. Suddenly I realize that I haven’t bought anything but the occasional cappuccino there since the holidays.

It isn’t that I haven’t bought lots of books this year. I’ve bought stacks and stacks of books. I just didn’t buy them at Barnes & Noble. 
Legions of people who live in or visit Bethesda are anguished that this Barnes & Noble is slated to close. Many view the closing of the last remaining bookstore in educated, well-read Bethesda as a kind of death knell for the community as we know it. 

“They are ripping the heart out of this place,” Francisco Aguirre-Sacasa, a former Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States, lamented recently. He divides his time between Nicaragua and his Virginia horse farm. When he’s anywhere near downtown Bethesda to give a speech or attend a football game at Georgetown Preparatory School—his alma mater—he detours to Barnes & Noble, at the corner of Woodmont and Bethesda avenues, to shop for books. “I won’t have any reason to come to downtown Bethesda after this is gone,” he says. 

More than 5,400 people have signed a Change.org petition imploring the bookseller’s landlord, Federal Realty, to strike a fair leasing deal to keep Barnes & Noble in Bethesda. The petition says the bookstore has been the heart and soul of this community for two decades. Petitioners threaten to boycott the next business to rent the space from Federal Realty (Anthropologie & Co.—the quirky fashion and home goods chain—announced this summer that it plans to open a store and restaurant there in 2018). Still, the number of people signing the petition to try to save the bookstore continues to grow. The petitioners’ grief and fury at the prospect of its loss are unmistakable.

I’m feeling more philosophical. At the end of any relationship, there’s usually plenty of fault to go around. In this parting, some of the fault is mine. Judging by the number of Amazon boxes I see on doorsteps around Bethesda, some of it might be yours as well. And some of the blame surely falls on Barnes & Noble. 

On a recent Thursday afternoon I met Marilyn Rosenberg, 74, a retired elementary school teacher, in the bookseller’s children’s department. She was with her daughter and 4-year-old grandson. She tenderly patted the covers of the books that she perused. She loves books. She has spent her life spreading her love of books. “This is just so sad,” she says of the store’s planned closing. “This shouldn’t be happening.” 

Her family comes to Bethesda regularly. Daughter Lindsay Ellenbogen likes that she can walk here from her home in Chevy Chase. For Ellenbogen, bringing her young son to a bookstore is not merely a commercial transaction, it’s an experience, she says: “I can see how he reacts to the colors on the book cover. We can sit down and I can read to him. We can share a real moment.”

This afternoon she’s on a mission. Her son will attend a birthday party in two days. She’s planning to buy a book from the Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile series as a gift. She’s already bought a stuffed crocodile to present with the book.

The children’s series is so beloved she couldn’t imagine that the giant bookstore wouldn’t stock a single copy. But they don’t. It was published decades ago, the clerk tells her, as if this is a reasonable explanation for its absence from the shelves.

“It’s a classic,” Ellenbogen says sweetly.

She whips out her phone as she walks away from the clerk. “I didn’t go 10 steps before I’d bought it on Amazon,” she says. It will be at her doorstep the next day. She looks at her mother sheepishly. They have a long-running debate about the pleasures and dangers of Amazon.

As I listen to them, I notice that we are standing in a section of the children’s department that is filled with row after row of toys for sale. It occurs to me that the bookstore lost this sale because it was confused about its mission. Maybe they should have stocked fewer toys, more children’s books. 
We are all, in the age of Amazon, trying to find our way. Nationally, Amazon is opening new brick-and mortar bookstores as Barnes & Noble is closing several beyond Bethesda. Independent booksellers, once predicted to become extinct because of competition from Amazon, are now flourishing. The resurgence is driven in part by millennials who don’t like big chain stores any more than I do.

When I moved to Bethesda in 2000, there was still an independent bookstore here, Olsson’s. For a couple of years after Olsson’s closed, I tried to give

Barnes & Noble my business. When they didn’t have the book I wanted, I asked someone to order it for me. Then, without ever making a conscious decision to abandon the only remaining bookstore within walking distance of my home, I slipped into the easy expediency of Amazon. Never once, in thousands of clicks, has Amazon ever given me anything but a flawless transaction.

In between clicks I salve my conscience by making pilgrimages to the independent bookseller Politics and Prose in Upper Northwest D.C. The bookstore is owned by two former journalists. They live in Bethesda. I’ve discovered countless authors, books and ideas at Politics and Prose, where the selection of merchandise is smart and the advice is expert. I don’t think of it as a bookstore; I think of it as a cultural treasure.

Just because I never thought of Barnes & Noble as a cultural treasure doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate its meaning to our community.

It functions splendidly as downtown Bethesda’s front porch. Friends meet one another by the fountain out front because everyone knows where that is. Well-behaved gaggles of teens gather after school near the third-floor café to study or socialize. Throughout the day and evening, all sorts of people go there to spend a quiet, comfortable few hours with a book or open laptop. When a stranger asks me for directions to someplace in downtown Bethesda, I usually describe the location in terms of how far it is from Barnes & Noble. 

Gerald Oberndorfer, who lives in Cleveland Park, treats the store like his comfortable home den. The former Marine was director of humanitarian programs at the State Department for 25 years until his recent retirement. He used to buy books closer to home, at Borders in Friendship Heights, until the chain went bankrupt. Now, at 78, he visits the Bethesda Barnes & Noble about twice a week. He buys two or three hardbacks, often international thrillers or military histories. He buys a cup of coffee at the store’s café. Then he spends the next few hours sipping and reading. At his actual home, too many distractions interrupt his reading, he says. He feels so at home at Barnes & Noble that when he wanders away from his table he leaves his eyeglasses, backpack and other stuff unattended. The employees know him by name. He feels comfortable enough to indulge in a favorite prank. When he comes across a book with Hillary Clinton’s face on the cover, he turns it backward. On the rare occasion a fellow customer intrudes on his solitude by talking loudly on a cellphone, he tells him or her to be quiet. “Usually, they shut up,” he says with a smile.

This curmudgeonly stranger let me sit with him for the longest time as we talked about politics, the books he’s reading, the military authors he knows. I told him that Anthropologie is scheduled to move into this space in 2018. He says he won’t be back to see that.

I won’t boycott Anthropologie, although I probably won’t spend much time there unless they have something to offer me beyond stuff. We don’t need another place just to buy things in Bethesda. We need a place to discover books and each other. We need a place to exchange ideas. We need a bookstore.

I have faith that someone will find a way to bring a bookstore back to Bethesda. I don’t know whether it will look like Amazon, Politics and Prose or some entirely new venture that I can’t yet imagine. I do know that I’ll never again make the mistake of taking the local bookstore for granted.
As the number of people signing the Change.org petition grows—despite Anthropologie’s plans to move into the bookstore’s space—I’m reminded of something a smart retail planner once told me. Customers feel a sense of ownership for the businesses they frequent, but they don’t have ownership. For privileged customers accustomed to getting pretty much what they want when they want it, this is a hard truth: The landlord giveth and the landlord taketh away.

Next year, whenever a stranger stops to ask me for directions to someplace in downtown Bethesda I expect I’m likely to say: “Do you know where Barnes & Noble used to be?” 

April Witt is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda. 

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