Monica Lewinsky famously shopped there. Maya Angelou drank there. And everyone from Andy Warhol to Toni Morrison has stopped in for a visit.
Over the past 40 years, Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe has become a Washington institution, drawing a steady following of diners and book-buyers to its overcrowded shelves.
Now its owners, who started the Dupont Circle business in their early 30s, are handing the reins to another young entrepreneur: 33-year-old Steve Salis, co-founder of local chain &pizza.
His first order of business: Expansion.
Salis is taking over an 800-square-foot space next door, most recently inhabited by Willie T’s Lobster Shack, and creating a children’s book annex that is expected to open next week. He plans to build a new coffee bar, add more events space and beef up the store’s lineup of cookbooks, history and nonfiction.
The renovation will continue over the next 18 months, while the store stays open.
“There’s so much history here,” Salis said as he walked past a display of books by Patti Smith. “My goal is to bring back some of that flair and energy.”
Salis has spent the past year studying the store, paying particular attention to the way customers drift from one section to another. His favorite place to hang out, he said, is in the store’s tiny architecture section, a set of seven narrow shelves flanked by travel books and a display case of cakes.
“It’s been a digestion period — coming in and watching everything,” he said. “Even if things give you heartburn, you want to be very, very careful to not ruin something that’s great.”
The biggest challenge will be merging the store’s two businesses — its book-selling operation and its restaurant. Both are notoriously difficult undertakings with high costs and low profit margins, he said.
Although the Kramerbooks and Afterwords Cafe are housed under the same roof, they have separate entrances — one on Connecticut Avenue, the other on 19th Street NW — as well as different computer systems and employees. In fact, Salis said, one-third of customers have no idea the other part of the business — the eatery or the bookstore — even exists.
“The hardest part is trying to figure out, how do we do a better job of bringing this experience together?,” Salis said. “It’s really tough. There are a lot of great things going on here. But in order for us to evolve, we’re going to have to be able to look beyond the corners. We’ve got to think ahead.”
When it opened, Kramerbooks was awash in oak fixtures and utilitarian lighting. Its walls were covered with lattice wood fencing, and there was little in the way of decor.
“It was what you’d look at now as old-fashioned, hippie-style,” said co-founder Bill Kramer, 70, who got his start working for his father’s shop, Sydney Kramer Books. “But we never overdecorated the place. There was always a notion that the books would speak for themselves, and the food would speak for itself.”
In the early days, the cafe out-earned the bookstore. The establishment stayed open round-the-clock from Thursday to Sunday, and attracted late-night locals and after-hours workers who stopped there to drink and eat.
But the balance has shifted over the years, with the bookstore bringing in more of the company’s revenue. A number of nearby booksellers — Borders, Barnes & Noble and most recently, Books A Million — have shuttered, creating new opportunities for Kramerbooks.
At the same time, Washington’s booming restaurant scene has meant increased competition for Afterwords Cafe. Last year, the combined business raked in upward of $10 million in sales, almost evenly split between the restaurant and the bookstore.
Sometime last year, Kramer said he and co-founder David Tenney began toying with the idea of selling their shop. But they were unsure of exactly how, or to whom.
“I knew the business was viable, but I also knew the restaurant was beat up and tired,” Tenney said. “If we could find some way to resurrect and invigorate the restaurant, there would be a wonderful future ahead.”
Then his lawyer introduced him to Salis. The two met at a Capitol Hill Starbucks. The more they talked, the more Tenney realized it was time to sell.
He was impressed by Salis, a college dropout who co-founded &pizza at the age of 27. The company has grown to include more than 20 locations and this week, announced it had received $25 million in venture capital to fuel an expansion to New York. (Salis is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations at &pizza.)
“We had a similar outlook and very similar goals,” Kramer said. “I realized it was time for me to, as gracefully as possible, bow out and bring in new talent.”
The deal is expected to be finalized in the first half of next year. Tenney will remain a part-owner.
“This business has tremendous potential,” Salis said. “There’s a thrill in being able to give people an experience they didn’t even know they wanted.”
But some things will remain as they’ve always been: The mazes of books, the fully-stocked bar and the decided lack of seating among the books. Unlike other bookstores, Kramerbooks has never had chairs, cushions or beanbags sprinkled among its shelves.
“That’s part of the charm,” Salis said. “We like that you can get lost in here. There are certain things you don’t want to play around with.”