The coffee bean has deep roots in Western political life, and Washington, D.C., is no exception to this tradition.
Originating in the modern Middle East, coffee is a fragrant and stimulating drink that proliferated explosively in Europe upon its arrival; by the time the first coffeehouse was opened stateside in 1676, Britain boasted over 3,000 nationwide. These rowdy establishments were hotbeds of political discussion and Enlightenment-era thought.
In today’s constricted bookselling industry, the coffee shop seems to be merging with the independent bookstore to create a streamlined consumption experience. In order to remain competitive and stay abreast of the day’s mouthwatering debates, these locales jam-pack schedules of poetry readings, nonfiction panels and celebrity author talks. In Washington, the three highest-profile hybrid bookstore-coffeehouses are Kramerbooks and Afterwords Cafe, Busboys and Poets, and Politics and Prose.
Established in 1976, Kramerbooks and Afterwords holds the title of first bookstore-cafe in the country. One street entrance in its Dupont Circle location leads into the typical cozy American bookstore. Bespectacled employees hustle back and forth between the towering shelves to assist D.C. intellectuals, yuppies and tourists. But enter from the back, and the scene shifts to a lively high-ceilinged dining room. A full wall of windows and one of mirrors play off of the red accents of the vinyl chairs. Waiters serve up lobster, steak and quinoa at night to patrons who might not even guess that Kramer is a purveyor of words.
If Kramerbooks operates on a somewhat separate, but balanced, scale of restaurant to bookseller, Busboys and Poets’ layout is all about the food and performance. With five locations scattered through D.C., Maryland and Virginia, the famous foodie destination’s name derives from groundbreaking black poet Langston Hughes’ stint as a busboy in a local hotel in the 1920s. Now, the space is dedicated as “a place to take a deliberate pause and feed your mind, body and soul … a space for art, culture and politics to intentionally collide.” With weekly open mic nights near constant other ticketed events, a blog, local art and emphasis on sustainable practices, Busboys and Poets certainly keeps up with the times.
Politics and Prose, however, as its name might suggest, has a history and clientele intimately involved in the political scene in Washington. P&P started in the 1980s as a small bookshop, but quickly expanded to become one of the foremost locations for political engagement in the District. In an inconspicuous storefront on Connecticut Avenue near the Maryland border, Politics and Prose boasts an impressive selection of books — political and otherwise — as well as an impressive lineup of guest speakers and lecturers.
On any given Sunday, expect to see the populace of Politics and Prose clambering over each other for seats at the afternoon’s lecture, which likely features a White House official or celebrated author of some kind. But below the bookshop’s main room lies a small coffeehouse, serving lattes and paninis to the dozens of young thinkers scattered throughout the store’s caverns of books on every topic imaginable.
There is an impressive level of engagement that these establishments encourage in their customers, and their owners bring political aspirations of their own to the beltway. Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal made a bid as a Democratic candidate for mayor in last year’s election. Never mind that Shallal earned only about 3.3 percent of the vote in April’s primary, it is a testament to D.C.’s intellectual and political scene that a restaurateur and bookseller could be a force in the race to become the region’s most powerful figure in local government.
The owners of Politics and Prose, too, boast an involved political background. When Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine bought the shop from the founders in 2011, they made it official that P&P is a powerhouse establishment for D.C.’s insiders. Graham, who was a journalist for The Washington Post, and Muscatine, who was a longtime speechwriter for Hillary Clinton, expanded the presence of the store and its role as an incubator for progressive intellectual political thought. Their performance in their first year in this role earned them a spot on GQ’s “Most Powerful People in Washington” list in 2012.
Few cities’ bookstores boast the same influence as these bookstore-restaurant-performance spaces wield. And while operating a bookstore may not qualify someone for the position of mayor, the power of these places is a testament to the District’s longstanding respect for literature, dialogue and, of course, caffeine.
David Chardack and Katy Berk are juniors in the College. Political Digest appears every other Friday.