Federal bookstore rebrands itself for policy wonks in and out of Beltway

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2010; 1:13 AM

Book sales are down nationwide, independents are gasping for air, and the future for bricks-and-mortar bookstores looks bleak. Government is going green and thrifty.

So, what's a new government bookstore that refuses to give in to the scanned, Googled, digital Zeitgeist doing steps from Capitol Hill?

The federal government may be moving its records and much of its whopping documentation of the legislative process online. But the Government Printing Office has rebranded and overhauled its once money-losing bookstore in the belief that a digital file cannot entirely replace the touch and smell and feel of a book. Even a book like the U.S. Army's "War Surgery in Afghanistan and Iraq."

With Washington being a place where the 9/11 Commission Report and the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009 actually make for serious pillow talk, the printing office staff hopes its reverence for tradition will break even, even if it doesn't break retail records.

"What we're looking at is staying in balance," said Robert C. Tapella, the public printer. "We see ourselves as a community bookstore. We're not trying to make the last buck. We are here to serve the American people."

The agency's publication business peaked at $100 million in revenue in the 1980s, went several million into the red in 2005 and two years ago bounced back to a small margin of profitability. But mostly the printing office is staying afloat by shifting its functions to security documents for a post-Sept. 11 world.

The bookstore's mission is different. "There are still a lot of Americans willing to plunk down money to browse in a bookstore," Tapella said. "There's a soul. A pulse."

The store made its first sale in 1895, 34 years after Congress created the printing office to publish and disseminate the work of the three branches of government. Its tiny sixth-floor home at 732 North Capitol St. NW was accessed only by freight elevator until 1921, when it moved downstairs to the lobby of one of the government's oldest agencies. From then until the store's grand reopening on Aug. 11, books were displayed on a long counter under drab lights. "It was a rack and stack government warehouse," Tapella said.

Now the store looks like a small-scale Barnes & Noble, designed for browsing and buying, a retailer of inside-the-Beltway decisions, how-to manuals and curiosities with outside-the-Beltway appeal that showcase the breadth of expertise in government.

Buyers will find the "Woody Plant Seed Manual" from the Agriculture Department in hardcover for $103 and "Government Auditing Standards," covering 218 pages, from the Government Accountability Office for $12.50. On the shelf, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration holds forth on "Understanding Marine Debris."

There are hard copies of the Federal Register, Congressional Record and Official Gazette of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office-publications that not long ago could be found on the desks of every congressional staffer or patent lawyer.

Among the 1,600 titles - plus another 1,000 online - are plenty of coffee-table books for curl-up-on-the-couch, from "Black Americans in Congress: 1870-2007" to "A Botanic Garden for the Nation," an illustrative text on the U.S Botanic Garden in Washington.

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