I walked across Wisconsin Avenue the other day to pick up a paperback at the Savile BookShop and only when I came to its empty front window did I remember that Savile is no more. I'd read about passing ("The end of Savilization as we know it, the story said), but Savile had been on my beat for 25 years and the message hadn't yet reached my feet. It set me thinking about what's happening to bookshops around here - the new ones that mix books with beer and sausage sandwiches and yogurt and rock music and discounts - and the old ones that still serve them straight. Book stores have lately developed such powerful personalities and exotic sidelines that you need to check your horoscope before walking into one - just to be sure it's the right day for hard-boiled bargains at Crown, not comfort and coffee at Francis Scott Key.
Savile, which was strictly books, had its own distinctive flavor. It was the shop for a certain kind of day - when there was time to kill and a yen for the hunt. Nosing through its antique rooms and narrow passageways had a pleasure all its own even though, more and more in recent years, the book I was looking for turned out not to be there. Handling Savile required an ego in good repair. The clerk at the cash register told you to park your briefcase at the door with the charm of a Lod Airport security guard, and the rest of the hired help ran the place like a private club. Asking where to find Italian cookbooks seemed as gauche as interrupting a game in the members' card room. One could grow old and die in one of Savile's 17 rooms waiting for help to come. Never mind, benign neglect has its uses in a bookshop. How else can a customer get in enough uninterrupted reading time to find out that "The Rise of Theodroe Roosevelt" is worth $15?
Savile is gone and Safeway up the street will never take its place, although it can satisfy a craving for the junk food of publishing. Safeway has recently discovered the written word and, north of light bulbs, laid in a stock of paperbacks ranging from "A Pirate's Love" to other heavy stuff by Kay Summersby and H. R. Haldeman.
A good destination when a serious book mood strikes these days is Book Annex. Now nearly three years old, Book Annex is growing up to be one of the most promising and competent shops around. Despite some unlikely roommates - records, tapes and a camera shop - Book Annex has a large and impressive stock that is heavy in academic books, ancient history and literary criticism, and a minimum of frills - only classical music in the background and discounts up front.
Over on Connecticut Avenue, Discount Books is still doing a bit of everything, from selling current books, remainders and backlists to offering discounts. It has the cheerful, chaotic air of a well-worn college bookshop on the first day of classes - right down to the shoplifting detector at the door. And it is crowded - which boosts my all-is-not-yet-lost mood. There must be other people out there who want a shop where books come first.
Beyond Dupont Circle is where Kramer Books and Afterwords mix books with chianti and quiche and cappucino and other cardinal sins. The action starts with breakfast and the morning papers at 8 a.m. and keeps throbbing until well after midnight seven days a week, complete with indoor and sidewalk cafes, continuous rock and jazz, a "full-service" bar and live entertainment. The sounds are diverting; the smells are delicious; the sights are tempting. But, like Bloomingdale's, it's so overstimulating I can't decide what I want - vodka, tomato and mozzarella salad or "The World According to Garp." I'd better get out of here and leave it to the rising young professionals ('upscale" customers is what they're called in this neighborhood) who are looking for more than books and aren't worried about butter on the pages.
A couple of blocks away another Kramer Books features "hurt" and remaindered scholarly works. Although I'm not sure that the new yogurt/carrot cake stand at the rear is an addition, there is something appealing about this Center for Distinguished Failures. A shop that sells H. G. Wells and Rebecca West for $2.98 is a shop to remember.
When it comes to buying books in cold blood, nothing can touch the chain stores. If you know what you want and what you want is a current best seller and it's in stock, you're in business at Crown on K Street - strictly business - at a hefty discount. Buying books at a chain is a passionless encounter, to be saved for a tough-minded mood.
On my hurt and remaindered days, it's straight to 28th Street and the Francis Scott Key - the neighborhood bookshop of my fantasies. It's a comforting corner store with a big, friendly dog under the desk and sometimes a pot of tea in the kitchen. Marty Johnson has been doing business at this stand for 39 years and still lives over the shop. She has the only surviving lending library in town (50 cents for four days), but no music, no food, no discounts, not even a cash register. Just books sold with politeness by people who have read them.
Francis Scott Key is descended from a traveling bookshop/library of the 1940s, which for 25 cents delivered the book of your choice to your door and picked it up one week later. "There was a lady on S Street," says Marty Johnson, "who had a standing order with us. She wanted four books a week, but of a certain kind - no sex, no war and no poor people. And we always filled the bill."
Although my banned books would be different from the lady on S Street, that's my kind of full-service bookshop.