The Globe Book Shop is no more. The once-specialized browsers' roost on 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, whose cast of patrons ranged from Amy Carter to Caspar Weinberger, from Foggy Bottom highbrows to Dupont Circle dilettantes, reopens next Thursday as part of the Waldenbooks empire. And after a bumpy ride of 25 years -- most recently as owner of six book stores and a card shop -- owner Alex Roesell will be riding a manager's desk in the flagship place he used to call his own.
The modest corner office that he shows you to with mandarin gentility will be knocked down as part of the extensive renovation planned for the store. "I'm going to have a small desk somewhere," says Roesell. "I don't really need . . . " He trails off with a shrug.
"We're down to nine without me," he says, referring to his soon-to-be-former employes. "We're going to lose another one this week. I would say most of them don't choose to stay with Walden or they have their own plans. I guess a few of them will stay."
But it's not quite as bleak as it sounds, he insists. Waldenbooks gave him a "very fair offer" and he has had positive dealings with the "people involved." And the new store, he says, "is not going to be your ordinary Waldenbooks store . . . I hope."
Waldenbooks, best known for mass-marketing how-to tomes in shopping malls, is a sort of Burger King of bookstores: a chain more attuned to marketing than to reading. As part of the K mart empire, it has not traditionally journeyed a road akin to Roesell's independent literary path.
Globe was going to be "a picture of the entire world," says Roesell. "Languages, background information, even Hungarian cooking . . . A person going on a trip to Tibet, they would think of this place to go for the environment, the food, you name it . . . Or if someone just found out they're going to be assistant military attache' in Ankara, Turkey, they walk in here to buy everything on Turkey . . .
"I think I got about three-quarters of the way I wanted to make it."
But in 1978, the discount-happy Crown Books chain moved in across G Street and that was, Roesell says, "the worst thing that happened to me. If I'd lost 33 percent of my business I would have been down the tubes. I lost 30.
"If two big companies play games in a supposedly free market, that's okay. But when a person's livelihood is at stake . . .
"If I had been in their shoes, I would have said, 'Well, I don't know about this.' There was nothing illegal, but knowing they were going to jeopardize a guy's business -- very dark times."
The issue, Roesell says, was unfair competition. The Federal Home Loan Bank Board had offered Crown a rental charge of $8 per square foot with 4 percent of sales over $1 million to be paid to the board for the first five years. There were to be increases of $2 a foot over the next five years and again after the 10th year of what was to be a 20-year lease. In a lawsuit against the FHLBB, Roesell claimed the FHLBB had previously offered him a lease of $18 to $20 a square foot.
Although a judge ruled in 1981 in Roesell's favor, declaring Crown's lease illegal, Crown was already established by then and pulling business away. Says Roesell, "I won the battle but lost the war."
As Crown "proliferated around town," Roesell "realized the small-store format was passe'" and sold or retired his other five stores to specialize in the main store. Although he got back in the black, he says, he decided to sell the last place in the face of an upcoming 50 percent rent increase. "I don't think I would have gotten an offer like [Waldenbooks'] again."
In addition, he says, "I don't have the brightest of outlooks for independent [bookstores] . . . When the big chains are having their shoot-outs, where the hell does the independent go?
"The only places for them to hide out are the small towns where the little activity doesn't interest the big guys, or in being highly specialized. In a place saturated with discounts you have to be unique or cater to the very rich."
The way Roesell sees it, the ending of the Globe era marks another instance in his life of being perpetually "derailed." He thought he was going to be a medic in World War II until an officer appeared in his Army tent at 3 a.m. and ordered him to join military intelligence.
He wanted to write about the United Nations for his master's but was asked instead to do a thesis on the partitioning of Poland. He was going to write a book about how to solve problems between individuals with diverging viewpoints, until he saw a similar book being reviewed in The New York Times Book Review.
When he opened the Foreign Language Center on Pennsylvania Avenue (at a different location from the main store on 17th), he planned to create a specialized bookstore in Washington. But neighboring bookstore owner Franz Bader persuaded Roesell to buy offBader's general-interest book inventory, and "again I got sidetracked."
After the building was demolished in 1965 (he had since renamed the store Globe), he opened a bookstore on I Street and opened the main store that is now Waldenbooks. He also opened a card store, ran a bookstore at Mount Vernon College and, in the mid-1970s, opened two more bookstores in Crystal City.
The Crown store opening in 1978 was the beginning of the final derailment or, perhaps more accurately, a shunting of Roesell into the switching yard.
Since the closing was announced, Roesell has been getting sympathy calls. "You need a bookstore like Globe," says Alvin Guttag, a patent attorney and Globe customer for about 15 years. "They had clerks that knew books . . . wouldn't give you just a blank stare.
"I feel quite strongly about this . . . If you want to buy something out of the ordinary, you cannot get it at Crown." In Guttag's case, that means placing orders for books by early 20th-century humorist Stephen Leacock, or picking up the latest German dictionary to help with work for one of his clients, a German chemical firm. "I'm very disappointed they've closed," he says.
"You're going to have a hard time getting anyone to say anything negative" about the store, says Richard America, a program manager for the Small Business Administration's Office on Private Sector Initiatives. "It was an excellent store for business and management . . . They had a staff that was patient -- It took a lot of time special-ordering, which I did a good bit of. They were above-average in helping customers -- a trait often missing in retail. They'll be missed."
The new store "will have more linear footage," says Mimi Figlin, Mid-Atlantic regional director for Waldenbooks. "It will probably carry maybe two to three times the amount of stock [Roesell] did, because of the way we lay out the fixtures, et cetera. It gives us the opportunity to give a selection he barely touched upon."
Waldenbooks, in addition to augmenting the present inventory, also plans to introduce a variety of videotapes, computer software and an expanded magazine selection.
"I view the store," says Figlin, "as, 'Here comes Walden to do what Alex has always wanted to do in terms of his business' . . . It's a big switch for him, I realize, but I think there was a level of comfort when he realized his ideas, coupled with my ideas, would work . . . It's going to be a good thing for Washington, I really believe."
There are many memories for Roesell -- "A big league lawyer, who's since been made a judge and for the longest time he's been coming here because he's really into the age of chivalry . . .
"Amy Carter used to browse through the children's section, the Johnson girls were here quite often . . . "
Roesell also remembers visits from various indicted Watergate players -- "A whole bunch of them bought books to catch up with their reading in jail."
But Roesell seems happy to have been granted a graceful exit. "In the book business," he says, "someone could be in business for themselves and be around something they truly enjoyed. I started with very little money in 1960. In those days publishers would be very cooperative. Nowadays your credit has to be . . . It's a different ball game . . .
"But you still feel bad. It's like killing your baby."