Even those who are most fanatical about books have moments when the acquisitive urge slackens. Lindsay Waters, executive editor of Harvard University Press, was in Washington recently for a conference. The night before it started, he met an old friend. "We had this big dinner and I was practically asleep," he recalls. "Then we go off to this place at 10 o'clock at night, which seemed a little extreme."
What Waters saw at Bick's Books, an Adams-Morgan store that opened last fall, woke him up. Now, understand that for personal and professional reasons Waters has seen some bookstores in his time. Furthermore, he lives in Boston, one of the very few book markets in the country that might be considered better than Washington.
Still, he says, "I was amazed at the inventory at Bick's. They had vast numbers of things pulled in from all over the world." Waters was particularly pleased to find some obscure pamphlets by the Trinidadian theorist C.L.R. James. "I can't find those books in Harvard Square. I can't find them in London. And the guy behind the counter knew a lot about James, and was gung-ho about him."
There's a larger point here, besides one not-easily-impressed customer who was nevertheless impressed. "In the '90s, the shop that can find unusual things is going to get the customer," says Waters. "The flow of information is so great we want someone who's going to teach us something new."
In Washington, the number of places to buy such information in the traditional form -- hardcovers and paperbacks -- is burgeoning. What was once a laid-back profession is now getting a bit more cutthroat, not to mention more complicated. Everybody's doing something new.
Bick's may be appreciated by those who have discovered it, but the place that has been getting most of the attention is Borders, the spacious four-month-old Rockville Pike branch of a 10-store Michigan-based chain.
New businesses can often have rocky starts, but Borders' only complaints are those brought about by its "tremendous" success: not enough parking, having to quickly hire more help. "The sense I get from customers," says manager Mitchell Stengel, "is a voracious appetite for our kind of bookstore."
That market, he feels, is being created rather than taken away from the competition. "Our feeling both here and in other cities," he says, "is that we're primarily expanding the market, especially because so much of what we carry in both depth and selection is what people can't find elsewhere."
That last statement is disputed by other booksellers. In fact, despite Stengel's assertion that "we have a very good relation with the other independents," there's a certain amount of grumbling.
"Borders scores a 'nine' on the pretentiousness scale. It gets tiresome that they're getting publicity for things that any good bookstore does. They have not invented good service, title selection and knowledgeable sales help," says Doubleday Book Shops chief executive Gary DelVecchio, referring to stories like the recent front-page New York Times article that, if it were a restaurant review, would have awarded Borders four stars.
John Olsson, president of the five-store Olsson's chain, has seen sales at his Bethesda outlet dip in the wake of Borders' debut. "I heard from other booksellers that they have a kind of arrogance," says Olsson. "I don't think biggest is necessarily best. A lot of titles can be superfluous."
One comment offered by several booksellers who have visited Borders is that the stock doesn't seem particularly adapted to the Washington market. They add that the selection, though broad, doesn't seem very innovative or deep. In general paperback fiction, for instance, the first two letters of the alphabet contain only 10 titles from publishers that could be considered out of the mainstream -- versus 93 for the same section at Bick's.
But what probably gripes the competition the most is that Borders appears to be doing terrific business. "What they've done is to very successfully catch and ride a wave," says Bill Kramer, president of Sidney Kramer Books. "Was all the attention slightly overdone? I suppose -- but I'm not sure that can be laid at Borders' feet. It's an expression of serious readers' hopes and expectations that this kind of store will suit their book needs."
Borders is doing so well -- at 9 p.m. Monday, not a particularly peak period, there were more than 65 shoppers in the store -- that there are rumors the company is scouting Virginia and downtown locations, particularly at the former home of the Circle movie theater at 21st Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Manager Stengel replies that "we're not actively looking," and says Borders currently has no intention of expanding locally.
With Crown, though, it's no rumor. "We have real estate people out looking on a daily basis for stores in the city," says chairman Robert Haft. It's all part of a plan to eventually have about 10 Super Crowns in the metro area, all of which will be double the size of ordinary Crowns and offer three times the number of titles.
The impetus that created the Super Crowns is the same fueling the growth of Borders: the thirst for more variety than a typical chain outlet (whether Crown, Waldenbooks or B Dalton Bookseller) can offer. "The Super Crowns really came out of just talking to our own customers," says Haft. "There were a lot of people who were saying they would love us to have a greater selection."
Many of those customers were created by Crown in the first place. In its 13 years of existence, the chain has revamped the local bookselling scene. Its ubiquity (62 stores to date, including four Super Crowns), discounting and remainders created a tidal wave, sinking such local fixtures as Horizon, Globe and Discount. But once the waters calmed, there was a renaissance of independent stores -- including Politics and Prose, Calliope, Bridge Street and Chapters -- that offered the specialized material and individual attention Crown could not.
Crown now is responsible -- at a very rough estimate -- for a third of the local book sales. "I credit them with coming in to what was obviously an underdeveloped market and seeing that there was a lot more business to be done," says John Thomson, a longtime observer and participant in the local book scene who now owns Bartleby's, a Bethesda second-hand store.
Adds Borders' Stengel: "The chains introduced books to an awful lot of people who happened to be walking through a mall. If that whets the appetite for reading and for books, we all benefit."
Meanwhile, the line between the independents and the chains is blurring. Waldenbooks and B Dalton, the country's two biggest chains, are experimenting with stores that offer more stock and better service, while the Super Crowns, as Haft acknowledges, are explicitly designed to close some of the gap.
"There's no question," he says, "that with a greater selection we're going to be more appealing to all types of shoppers. A certain amount of sales will come from competing stores, and a certain amount will be new business. There is an elastic market."
As it happens, one of the first Super Crowns is a block away from Borders in White Flint Plaza, the down-market cousin to the adjoining mall. Haft is aggressively promoting these stores through such techniques as mailing coupons offering $7 discount on purchases of $20 or more to nearby residents. At 8:30 p.m. on Monday, there were 39 people in the store.
Bick's Books is facing a different set of challenges than either Borders or the Super Crowns. Owner Robby Bick knows the traps that even very good independents can fall into: His uncle was the owner of Discount, the defunct Dupont Circle store that was considered among the best in the country in the late '60s. More recently, Bick was manager of St. Mark's in New York, another shop considered one of the country's best but which likewise has passed through some trying times.
"If I were looking for security or to get rich, I wouldn't do this," Bick concedes. "I could open a gift shop and probably make more money, but what would be the satisfaction? There's nothing like when someone comes in and takes a book off the shelf -- the three volumes of Sartre's 'Family Idiot' or one of the 14 translations of the 'Tao Te Ching' and says, 'I've been looking for this for years.' "
Borders gets criticized for being too indistinct -- "It seems to have no heart or soul," says Bartleby's Thomson, which is also an argument that has been used against Crown for years. While Bick's has a definite flavor -- green politics and quality literature are stand-outs -- it's unclear whether it's to Washington's taste.
Thomson, who used to operate Bartleby's as primarily a new bookstore that in many ways resembled Bick's in its intellectual approach, says: "There is an audience in Washington for a store like this. But if there's an area in Washington that could support it, it would be Dupont Circle. It's questionable whether people will go to Adams-Morgan."
At 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, there were nine people in Bick's. "We'd love to have a lot more business, but we're able to get by," says the owner. "Sales are above where I feared they would be and below where I hoped they would be."
To boost business, he's planning to continue advertising and is starting a newsletter. Similar techniques are used by the other independents. You can't wait to be discovered. For one thing, terrific as the Washington market is, there are fears it eventually could get oversaturated.
Until and unless that happens, it's unclear exactly how the market will shake out. If you go to the White Flint Plaza Super Crown and they don't have the title you want but offer to order it, will you do it for the 20 percent discount or will you walk up the hill to Borders and hope it's there already? Will the fact that Bick's offers books likely to be found nowhere else in the city -- say, "Nelson Mandela: His Life in the Struggle" or Thomas Pynchon's rare pamphlet "A Journey Into the Mind of Watts" -- create an audience even if there's no Metro stop and the parking is ghastly?
If the saga of Washington bookselling has a happy ending, it will partially depend on the ability to convert new readers. In that light, Robby Bick offers a success story.
A copy of Thomas Keneally's most recent novel, "To Asmara," was displayed in the window. An Ethiopian cabdriver noticed the reference to his native land and bought it. "That night," says Bick, "we sold every copy we had. Now we've sold over 100 copies, basically by word of mouth over the taxi driver intercom.
"Suddenly we found ourselves serving the Ethiopian community, which we're now, of course, pursuing. That's one of the things that makes the business exciting. We discovered an entire community that we knew only as cabdrivers and restaurant owners."