Customers Mourn the Passing of an Independent College Park Bookstore

By Lisa Frazier Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 23, 2009

Like mourners at a wake, dozens of loyal customers packed into Vertigo Books in College Park and lingered in small clusters throughout Saturday evening to say goodbye to their friend.

That's what Vertigo has been to this crowd for nine years in Prince George's County, and to many of the mourners for nine years before that when the store operated in the District near Dupont Circle: a reliable, progressive old friend who always offered just the right words to inspire, challenge, inform or burn them up.

The demise of Vertigo, which closes Saturday, came as no surprise to its regular customers. The folks who gathered there one last time have witnessed the deaths of many other small, independent bookstores, beaten down by the demands of the technology-driven literary market and ultimately gobbled up by the aptly named driver of the change, Amazon. But the crowd was no less sad.

"It's very disappointing to me," said Todd Steven Burroughs, 41, of Hyattsville, a freelance writer and lecturer at Morgan State University in Baltimore. "I'm working on a book, and I dreamed of having a book signing here. Where can I go now? That's become more difficult."

To make his point, he rattled off a few locally owned bookstores, particularly those specializing in African American literature, that he has seen disappear:

"Sisterspace, Yawa, Pyramid, Karibu -- gone, gone, gone, all in the last 10 years."

Bridget Warren and Todd Stewart, the married couple who own and operate Vertigo, first hinted at trouble in April 2000 when they decided to move to College Park after being priced out of their Connecticut Avenue storefront. But there were plenty of reasons for them to feel hopeful that their store would thrive in its new home. The space was larger and well situated, 3,300 square feet in a busy strip mall and an academic community ripe for the kind of intellectual discussions, hard-to-find books and activist spirit found at Vertigo.

Then-University of Maryland President C.D. Mote Jr. even responded with a letter in this newspaper when a few snarky D.C. customers were quoted lamenting the store's move from the city to "no-man's land."

"With all due respect -- and sympathy," his letter began, before extending a hearty welcome to the store. "Vertigo Books will be well-received in College Park, and our 33,000 students and more than 10,000 faculty and staff will provide an eager market for the eclecticism that has endeared the store to Dupont Circle denizens all these years."

For nine years, the store held its own, and Warren and Stewart, who live in University Park, managed to work and raise two daughters -- Sophie, 18, and Nora, 10 -- close to home. But few foresaw the impact the mighty online competitor would have on independent bookstores. Amazon made buying books (and practically anything else) as easy as a few clicks on the computer keyboard, and with frequent free or low-cost shipping promotions, doing so often seemed inexpensive.

But free doesn't mean without a cost, Warren and Stewart warned in October when they e-mailed regular customers and posted a plea for help on the store's Web site: "Vertigo Books is at risk. Vote with your dollars now if you value our local economy and this store."

The couple even screened a documentary about other dying bookstores. The faithful watched the documentary, batted around a few ideas for saving their favorite space and recruited friends to join them in shopping at the store during the holidays. But as Warren and Stewart explained in an online notice to customers about the store's impending closing, the efforts were appreciated but not enough to compete with Amazon, which doesn't have to charge sales tax.

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