Olsson's Books And the Tomes Of Our Lives

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 1, 2008

"Ouch," read the subject line on the e-mail that brought the news. As soon as I opened it, I understood exactly what the sender meant.

Bookstores are personal.

And I've been haunting Olsson's Books and Records -- the local independent chain that announced yesterday it was throwing in the towel -- for 23 years.

It's hard to miss what's been happening to bricks-and-mortar booksellers around the country. Hey, even big, bad Borders looks extremely shaky these days. But I'm in denial about this one.

Surely, surely, I can still pop into the Dupont Circle Olsson's on my way home?

It was sometime in the fall of 1985 that I first wandered in. That December, I shopped for last-minute Christmas presents there. Was I steered to some book I hadn't heard of by the handwritten notes Olsson's staffers posted about their favorites? I can't recall, but I know I perused them carefully over the years.

And I probably saved 50 bucks by using the free, no-frills wrapping paper by the front door. Thanks, guys.

You didn't go to Olsson's for children's books -- it wasn't their thing -- so once my kids came along, I gravitated elsewhere for those. But I'm ashamed to confess the number of bedtimes I missed because I told myself I'd drop into the store "just for a minute."

Olsson's sold music, too, of course. This was a great one-two punch, except that it meant that as a retailer, you got not just Amazoned but iTuned when online retailing changed the world.

Still, I bought a lot of music I hadn't heard before at Olsson's, especially after the store installed those listening posts with headsets. And when one daughter got old enough to go to the 9:30 club, I used them to check out a group called the New Pornographers she was lobbying to see.

A few years back I got asked to cover books and publishing for The Post, which brought me into even closer touch with local bookstores. Olsson's couldn't compete with the Politics and Prose juggernaut when it came to author events, but that didn't mean the folks there didn't try.

Often, after work, I'd run down to the Penn Quarter store to check out authors known and unknown. Etgar Keret, a young Israeli writer, was one of the unknowns (to me, at least). He told a hilarious tale about how the first story he ever wrote got used to clean up after his brother's dog. Later, staring over a sea of heads one night, I heard Nick Hornby lead the singing of "Happy Birthday" to a blushing young woman in the crowd.

Last year, I asked Olsson's head book buyer, Alexis Akre, if she'd let me follow her around at BookExpo America, the industry's annual megaconvention. She agreed, then pretty much wore me out -- convincing me, in the process, that she was more dedicated to her job than I was to mine. We both had teetering stacks of new books we could never keep up with, but I hadn't brought nearly as many as she had to read on the train.

Akre left her job last summer. When I called her yesterday evening, she said she'd be heading out soon for an "organized wake" for Olsson's at a bar near the Dupont Circle store.

"It was a wonderful place to work," she said. "I was sad to leave, and it's even sadder to see it gone."

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