It was a refuge for Riverdale Park's literati and a stamping ground for everybody else. For nearly a half-century, the Riverdale Bookshop & Coffee Depot anchored the town's historic business district.
It's where folks met during the holidays to take trolley tours of the neighborhood's Christmas lights, where they went in the mornings for a cup of coffee and a rundown on the gossip, where Riverdale Park's mayor held his campaign fundraisers.
And as of today, it's closed for good.
A Washington developer is taking over the building, which sits at Queensbury Road and Rhode Island Avenue, at the town's commercial center. There's a strip of brick-faced storefronts to the left, an old-fashioned MARC rail station and period clock tower to the right. Yet for all the available retail space, the biggest show in town seems to be the smoky watering hole across the street.
For more than three years, Douglas Development Corp., which owns many of the buildings in the town center, has pledged to liven things up in this sleepy Prince George's town of roughly 6,600 nestled between Hyattsville and College Park. The developers are dreaming of a restaurant and retail center with office space and residential units -- a small-scale Bethesda Row, Pentagon Row or Seventh Street at MCI Center.
In a county struggling to attract high-end retailers and restaurants, Riverdale Park might be just the ticket, said Blake Esherick, who is directing the development plan. All it takes to jump-start the center is one brewery or cafe. "Once I get one of those in, I think the rest of the retail will really flow," he said.
But the people of Riverdale Park are looking at the development of their town's center more realistically. Douglas owns the strip of refurbished storefronts along a brick-paved sidewalk -- perfect for retail, residents say -- but the stores have sat empty for more than three years.
"We've kind of got our hand out at the moment, and we're not getting much response," said the town's mayor, Vernon Archer.
Jim Coleman, 45, a graduate student at the University of Maryland, sat on a wooden bench at the bookstore, working on his laptop and sipping from a mug of coffee. He grew angry as he pointed at the storefronts across the street and talked about the developer's promises.
"It's all empty, and he hasn't lived up to his commitment to the town," Coleman said.
Esherick hopes that with the closing of the bookstore, which opened in 1956, he'll have a swath of space to lease. But it also means that the townspeople have lost their meeting spot.
"It's an end of an era here," said one of the store's co-owners, Simon Plog, as he wrapped glasses and vases in newspaper to pack into a box. "This has been a community center for years. It's a big loss for the community. It's going to be a big hole."
Across the street at the S&J Bar and Restaurant, Chrystal Doyle was tending bar and serving a modest lunchtime crowd as country music drifted through the speakers.
"I think it's sad," she said.
"It's just been there forever, and people just expect it to be there," she added, sliding a few steps down the counter to fill a cup with soda. "It's just a neighborhood place for people to go to with their families."
The people who visited the bookstore on its last day of business, Friday, said they don't want their town to turn into a suburban strip mall. They like its charm. One longtime customer brought the bookstore owner a six-pack of beer to mark the closing. Another brought him a box of Popeyes fried chicken for lunch.
"It's always been a default neighborhood destination," said Alan Thompson, 41, a research scientist who arrived at the store with his two young children. "It's been the place to bring my kids for ice cream, to come in the morning to get my coffee on the way to work. I'm going to miss this place."
Coleman said Riverdale Park has the feeling of a small town with a strong sense of community. He said he doesn't want the center of the town he calls a "multicultural Mayberry" to have "another soulless strip mall."
Thompson chimed in, "I hope we can do better than that."
Archer, who ran for mayor in the spring hoping to breathe life into the town's commercial district, said he is hiring an economic development director to make sure the developers follow through on their promises of revitalization. Until then, Archer watches nostalgically as the town's anchor closes shop.
"What makes this very hard to take is that there's been a Riverdale bookstore for 50 years," he said. "Just from a traditional standpoint, it's hard to swallow. But what makes it doubly hard to swallow is that nothing's been put in its place."