First Novel Corner

IT'S NOT all that unusual for Washington bookstore proprietors to write fiction. Two well-known examples of this dual hat-wearing are Larry McMurtry, who's one of the owners of Booked Up in Georgetown, and Doris Grumbach, co-owner of Wayward Books, which recently moved to a new location up the street from the Eastern Market. But Inga Dean, who ran Dupont Circle's Folio Books from 1974-78, moved to the Berkshires before finishing her first novel.

However, Memory and Desire, released this month by Viking, makes abundant use of Dean's 17 years in Washington. Still, she says, the jacket-copy writers didn't get it exactly right at first: "They thought it was about senators and things and didn't realize there was this other life in Washington." Dean's heroine is the wife of a psychiatrist, and the haut-bourgeois scene in Cleveland Park is her milieu.

In her early days in Washington, Dean, who's half-Viennese and the daughter of journalist William L. Shirer, worked for northern Virginia community papers. During the '68 Democratic primaries, she contributed position papers to Senator Eugene McCarthy's campaign, and by 1970 she'd finished the manuscript of a novel. A few near- acceptances kept her going for a while, but eventually she put it away in the proverbial drawer.

"With the novel turned down, one day I was walking and found myself inspired by Simeon Books on Macomb Street. The woman there always seemed to be sitting in the window in the sunlight, and I said to the friend I was with that it looked like an enviable existence."

Folio Books opened not long afterwards and attracted a following drawn to its specialization in literature, poetry, criticism and small press books and to the many readings held there. Equally "impulsive" (as Dean describes it) was her move several years later to the Massachusetts village where her father lives. As usual, the bookstore had turned out to be more work than expected, and her mind was straying with increasing frequency to thoughts of another novel.

So, on "a crisp February day, sunny and not too cold," Dean was seduced by the lure of New England (realizing only after she and her family had transplanted themselves that such perfect moments are the wintertime exception in those parts rather than the rule). "It is easy to write up here," Dean explains wryly. "There are no distractions. At the same time, that's the very reason I often miss Washington!" Shelf Life

BOOKSTORE customers little realize how much thought goes into the arrangement of the shops they browse in. For the booksellers themselves, however, shelving can be an inexact science. Is Rebecca West's Black Lamb, Grey Falcon Literature or Travel or European History? Does I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Hannah Green have its best placement in Fiction or Psychology? Decisions of that sort are made daily when book cartons are opened; some choices are clear, others have to be judgement calls.

At Politics & Prose Bookstore on upper Connecticut Avenue, manager Barbara Meade and owner Carla Cohen are engaged in an ongoing, friendly guerrilla war over the shelving of some of their fiction stock. As Meade describes it, there's a separate area reserved for what in winter is called "Airplane Reading" and in the summer is relabeled "Beach Books." The struggle between the two women broke out because each has her own idea about which authors are suited for this category.

"It's a very rough area. Let's take James Michener for example," she says -- adding, parenthetically, that in this case she and Cohen are on the same side. "You put him in Beach Books and you offend a lot of people who think when they're reading him they're really reading something serious. On the other hand, there are people who'd be pretty angry 10 pages into The Source or Chesapeake if they thought they'd picked up something 'light' for their holiday."

On the matter of Judith Rossner, however, Meade and Cohen can't agree at all. "We move her back and forth. I put her in with the serious stuff and Carla returns her to Beach Reading. But I think August, say, is too heavy-going for stretching out on the sands of Bethany." Herman Wouk, also, is an author who "wanders" between the two areas.

It's because Politics & Prose has made an effort to distinguish types of fiction, of course, that they have this problem at all. "In some stores," Meade notes, "they'd just stick them all together, Wilkie Collins next to Jackie Collins. I suppose our way means that we're doing some of our customers' work for them." Side Bets

A curious book came out two years ago, about the author David Plante's own relationships with three different female friends. Called Difficult Women, it dealt with Germaine Greer, Jean Rhys and Sonia Orwell, widow of George. Now arrives Trio, a very different sort of memoir of three women: Gloria Vanderbilt, Oona Chaplin (widow of Charlie and daughter of Eugene O'Neill) and Carol Saroyan Matthau (married first to William, then to Walter). It's their four decades of close friendship which links the book's many fascinating anecdotes about the likes of J.D. Salinger, Richard Avedon, James Agee, Kenneth Tynan and Truman (Capote, not Harry). The author, by the way, is Aram Sarayan, son of one of his subjects . . . .A few months back, we noted ("Book Report," April 28, 1985) the imminent publication by Dell of a Spanish-language edition of James Clavell's Shogun, to test the growing demand for Spanish books in trade outlets. Now, with a slogan inspired by Cervantes ("Baker & Taylor ends your long quixotic search for Spanish books"), a major American wholesaler has launched a Spanish importation program. B & T's agreement with Libros Espanoles, S. A. (a cooperative of 162 major Spanish publishers) means that almost any available title can be ordered, while B & T will stock in their warehouses 500 books of special U.S. interest. Books listed in the initial catalogue range from Bette Davis al desnudo, Charles Higham's bio of the movie star, to Herejes de Dune by Frank Herbert. Danielle Steel, Woody Allen and Dr. Spock are among other authors offered, and there's a large selection of children's books, as well.