IN A serious blow to the Washington book-buying community, Bartleby's Bookshop is going out of the new book business. For three and a half years, the Bethesda store has offered an innovative mixture of the best secondhand and the best new titles; some of its scholarly volumes were unavailable in any other Washington shop.
Not enough people cared. Eighty percent of the inventory was new books, but only 50 percent of the sales. "For the new books, we needed a higher foot traffic," says owner John Thomson. "There were days in January when, if we saw six or seven people, it was a big day."
Part of the problem is that the mall in which Bartleby's is located is undergoing renovation. Most of the stores are empty, and the whole complex has a desolate, forbidding look. Presumably, when the job is finished and some adjoining office buildings get completed, the amount of foot traffic will go up.
By that time, however, the end of Bartleby's lease will be in sight, and the mall's new owners have made it clear they are planning a large hike in rent. Converting to all secondhand stock now at least takes off the immediate financial squeeze. And since used book buyers will seek out a secondhand shop in a way that new buyers won't, the store will have the option of eventually relocating to a less pricey area.
It wasn't supposed to work out this way. When Thomson began Bartleby's, he envisioned it as being the sort of ideal store he had always dreamed of. "I wanted to offer what I thought was the best possible selection of books, whether they had gone out of print or were still available . . . Now that I've done it, I realize they're really two different businesses. The clientele is different, and while one has to do with a fair amount of paperwork and being tied to the shop, the other involves going out and looking for the books."
The silver lining here is that Bartleby's will now expand further into the secondhand field, presumably turning what was already a very good section into an even better store. But it will still be one less place to find good new books in a city that 20 years ago boasted two of the finest stores in the country -- Savile and Discount.
"Given its size, Washington has always surprised me with the fact that there isn't a deeper market for more literate books," comments Thomson. "It's got one of the highest educations and incomes per capita of anywhere, but all the needs seem to be satisfied by the chain stores. I don't understand it."
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON, one of the most highly regarded of the younger science-fiction writers, has mixed feelings when he goes to one of the dozens of sf conventions that are held each year. Sometimes he's thrilled, and sometimes he's horrified.
"The field gives writers a unique opportunity to meet face to face with a portion of their audience," says the writer, who just had a story selected for the final Nebula Awards ballot. "The danger is, you can also meet the audience that is committed to sf to an unhealthy degree, as an escape from the real world. I don't approve of that. On the contrary, science fiction can be one of the great ways of engaging with the real world."
In either case, he says, "in this age of television, it's very neat to see 3,000 people who have gotten together because of books -- even if a certain percentage have fallen over the edge, so to speak."
Robinson, 35, has just moved to Chevy Chase because his wife took a job with the Food and Drug Administration as a research chemist. Previously, they had been living in Switzerland, which gave him a bit of isolation from the booming American science-fiction scene. In the dozen years he's been publishing, he notes, sf "has become big business. There's hardly any other area of publishing that can count on such a reliable, large audience of sales. Young readers take it seriously because they've grown up in a science-fiction novel, which is late 20th-century America."
Besides the close relationship with the reading audience, sf also provides its writers with opportunities that mainstream fiction never could. Robinson's new novel, The Gold Coast (reviewed on page 8), is part of a thematic trilogy that takes an old sf gimmick and stands it on its head.
"There's the alternative history, which usually goes back in the past and says that if something had happened differently -- if Kennedy had not been assassinated, or if the Nazis had won World War II -- the whole world would be changed," he explains. "I'm using that concept but am taking now as the change point. I see this moment as the base of a tripod, and the three books as the legs -- as far away from each other as I can imagine."
So a couple of years ago his first novel, The Wild Shore, presented Southern California as a backwater -- the result of a limited nuclear exchange turning the United States into a fourth-rate power. The Gold Coast reverses that idea and shows corporate capitalism and militarism as utterly triumphant. In the third book, which Robinson is writing now, he hopes to show a more ideal future.
"The utopia's not a natural form for the novelist," he says. "It's more for the political scientist or philosopher. The moment you say 'utopia,' the narrative excitement seems to leak away. But I'm having fun with it. It's a challenge."
The idea behind the three novels is to show the radically different possibilities the future could hold. Both heaven and hell are firmly plausible, depending on who wins Super Tuesday and a thousand other small decisions. "I think sf can be a very political literature," Robinson says. "If you choose one future, you're necessarily emphasizing some parts of the current world and deemphasizing others. It's a political choice. The sf novel is either mindless escapism or a very engaged act."
Fair Thee Well
THE 13TH annual Washington Antiquarian Book Fair, to be held next weekend, provides the best local opportunity to check out large amounts of quality secondhand and antiquarian material. Seventy exhibitors will be present from all over the country. Odds are against finding bargains here -- a few dealers, in fact, seem to use these fairs as an opportunity to exhibit material at above-market rates -- but you may get lucky and locate a sought-after text in a rare edition. Even if not, it's always fun to look. An appraisal service will also be provided, and, if last year is any guide, there will be an abundance of prints for sale.
Admission is $12 on Friday night, March 4th. This is when the serious buyers come and when some of the best titles get snapped up. There will be free hors d'oeuvres and a cash bar. On Saturday or Sunday, admission is $3. The fair, a benefit for Concord Hill School in Chevy Chase, is held in the Rosslyn Westpark Hotel on 1900 N. Fort Myer Drive. Call (301) 229-1149 for more information.
In the Margin
CRIME & MYSTERY: The 100 Best Books (Carroll & Graf) is an assertive and definitive-sounding title. In his introduction, however, H.R.F. Keating argues that a longer title is more accurate: One Hundred Very Good Crime and Mystery Books, Taking Into Account That No Author Should be Represented by More Than Three Titles (So As to Be Fair to Others) and Allowing for a Little Personal Idiosyncracy in Naming One or Two Whom the Majority of Other Commentators Might Not Have Chosen Very Readily. Under either name, the book is an amusing and instructive guide that will point out some of the best books in the field . . .
The Kipling Press is a new children's book publisher that aims to present challenging and high-quality material in an attractive, low-priced format. Its first four volumes, all of which sell for a modest $6.95, come close to achieving this goal. Two are satisfactory biographies of Jack London and Laura Ingalls Wilder. The third is The Owl, an uneven "goblin tale" by playwright David Mamet and actress Lindsay Crouse about a boy who wants to save his ducks from the slaughterhouse. The fourth book, Lorrie Moore's The Forgotten Helper, is the best. It tells of Aben, a cranky prankster elf who gets left behind by Santa at the house of an equally cranky girl. Familiar territory, yes, but all does not turn out here as expected. This story deserves to stick around for a couple of Christmases, as does The Kipling Press itself . . .
M.F.K. Fisher's first book, Serve It Forth, appeared 51 years ago this spring. In May, as a sort of summing-up, a collection of the introductions she has written to both her own and other peoples' efforts will be issued by North Point Press. In Dubious Honors, the doyenne of food writers says that her favorite of all her books is the treatise on folk medicine called A Cordiall Water. When a reissue was being considered, Fisher told the publisher that since the book was therapeutic, it might sell in airports as a form of reassurance or comfort. "Sure enough," she writes, "a batch taken to the San Francisco airport was bought immediately by about fifty unknown passengers, and I like to think that it helped them reach their destinations, if nothing more." Given the chaotic conditions in airports these days, maybe the airlines should distribute a free copy of the book with each ticket.