It's one long block away from the glittery Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, but it's really several light-years away.
There are no elegant tapestries in this dank, green cinder-block warehouse. No designer gowns. No $2,000 alligator boots. In fact, there isn't even a door. To enter, you heave yourself onto and through a five-foot-high loading dock or you don't go in at all.
But inside 1201 S. Fern St. in Arlington, something is going on that's as beautiful as anything Nordstrom or Macy's ever sold.
They call it Project Desert Read. It's a volunteer service that collects and arranges to ship books to American troops serving in the Persian Gulf.
As of last week, PDR had sent 66,000 new and used books to Saudi Arabia. The organization welcomes as many more as the public would care to contribute.
PDR is less than three months old. It was born of a friendship among four Washingtonians who worked together on President Bush's 1988 inaugural committee.
A more unlikely Gang of Four would be hard to find. Leo Brady, of Arlington, retired last year from the Office of the Inspector General in the Government Services Administration, where he had been a senior inspector. Skip Hahn, of Alexandria, is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. Malcolm Harshman, of Shirlington, works as a technical editor. Sarah Madden, of Cheverly, is an office manager and lobbyist for a research and development company and a calligrapher on the side. None of the four has ever worked in the book business before.
Yet PDR is already a stunning success. A look around the warehouse last week was the only evidence you would have needed.
Half the room was packed with floor-to-ceiling stacks of cardboard banana boxes. The boxes contained books of all sorts -- 90 percent of them paperbacks and 70 percent of them novels, with "a high concentration of Tom Clancy and Dick Francis," as Skip Hahn put it. There were 42,000 volumes in the warehouse altogether.
By the time you read this, they will have been trucked to a military depot in Mechanicsburg, Pa. From there, they will be sent to Saudi Arabia by military transport, on a space-available basis. The first PDR shipment was in Saudi Arabia less than three weeks after it left the Fern Street warehouse.
This would be a major logistical achievement under any circumstances. It's especially notable when you consider that no money is involved in any phase of PDR's operation.
The Arlington Gang of Four works without salary. The warehouse space is donated. The Teamsters union and St. Johnsbury Trucking have donated trucks, pallets and drivers. And the depot in Pennsylvania has donated the labor, space and time to move PDR's books the final step of the way.
According to Leo Brady, about 20 Washington area volunteers have pitched in to help with sorting, stacking and shrink-wrapping the books. PDR has concentrated on paperbacks because they weigh less than hardcovers, and because "they're easier to fit into a rucksack." However, PDR will not turn any books away, regardless of subject or type.
The only cloud on the PDR horizon so far has been the question of literary taste. Saudi Arabia has asked that no sexually explicit or politically controversial literature be sent into the country. So as they pack and sort, the volunteers often have to vote on whether a certain donation is within bounds.
One nay, and it's put aside, to be donated to stateside libraries run by the Department of Defense's Army Library Service. "Every book finds a home, even if that home is not in Saudi Arabia," Leo Brady said. What kinds of books are especially welcome for soldiers? "Books that'll take their minds off what they're doing," Leo said.
Donors so far have included "everybody from blue-collar workers to retired generals," Skip Hahn said. And as word of PDR spreads, the Gang of Four expects donations to begin arriving from all over the United States.
In the meantime, PDR invites Levey readers to scour their basements and bring in unwanted books that are still in good condition. PDR accepts deliveries from 5 to 9 p.m. on Wednesdays and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. PDR asks that no books or packages be left in the Fern Street parking lot at any other time. Air Force offices are nearby, and military security guards will confiscate any unaccompanied package.
For further information, call 703-920-4969, or write to Desert Read, Box 1, 2503 Columbia Pike, Arlington, Va. 22204. And if you've got a few cheers to spare, aim them at Leo, Skip, Malcolm, Sarah and all the rest of their crew. They have proved once again that the old question "What can I do?" can be answered by a little imagination and a lot of shoe leather.