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.
"As we have said before, your shopping dollars help create the community you want to live in. For every $10 you spend at locally-owned businesses, $4.50 stays in our community," they wrote, using a conservative estimate.
Spend $10 at Vertigo, they explained, and about half stays in the county. Spend the same at Amazon, and the local economy gets zero.
"The money you spend with locally-owned businesses continues to circulate as we pay employees, buy supplies and pay taxes that are used to provide basic services to residents," the couple said.
Last week's gathering had been announced as a potluck wake and discount shopping opportunity, and the mourners came with their children, credit cards and covered dishes. They gathered armloads of books, waited in long lines and chatted for hours with the like-minded, while the little ones pulled some of their favorites from the shelves and stretched out on the floor.
Prince George's County Council member Eric Olson (D-College Park), with his long, straight hair in its trademark ponytail, was there. "You lose the independent voices," he said, trying to express what the closing of Vertigo means. "You don't find the community on the Internet, not the same kind of community."
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's), the graying state lawmaker with a stud in his ear, was present, too.
"I live a few blocks away. They're neighbors and friends," he said of the owners. "They raise political issues by the very stock they carry. They're progressive, and that's important to me."
There were hugs and commentaries: "This is wrong! Just wrong," one woman said to another in a back corner near the children's section.
But Warren, who also has worked for the past several years as director of programming for the Prince George's County library system, kept the atmosphere light with her stories, such as the one about how she offered former employee Joe Razza, 39, of the District, a job at the downtown store in 1992 when he began spending so much time there that she figured he ought to make himself useful.
"When certain authors come to Washington to read, they look for Vertigo," Razza said. "Authors like Toni Morrison, Walter Mosley, Ishmael Reed. This is the one place that Darius James knows in Washington. . . . Right now, I'm just sad. I wish I were here for a different reason."
Sophie Stewart, a freshman at Barnard College in New York, came home for the potluck at her parents' store, which was particularly poignant for the longtimers who had watched her grow up there.
"I always thought I was very lucky to grow up here and go to off-site events with my parents. Even though we're losing it, I'm really happy my parents didn't decide to become lawyers or something like that," she said. "I'm really proud of them, even though it's not been the easiest job."
Information about Vertigo is at the store's Web site, http://www.vertigo-books.com.