Did you know that the World Bank runs a nifty bookstore at 18th and Pennsylvania NW, stocking everything from statistics-heavy tomes on international development to “Cooking the Cambodian Way,” from “Natural Disaster Hotspots: Case Studies” to Michael Lewis’s “The Big Short”?
How lovely, in this age of disappearing downtown bookstores — bye-bye Borders, so long Chapters, adios Olsson’s — that we have this brainy oasis for lovers of the printed word.
But not for much longer. The World Bank Group InfoShop — the store’s official name — will close Oct. 14. Fans are distraught. More than 1,300 have signed an online petition begging the bank’s bigwigs to keep the shop open.
“I still love books, real books,” said Aldo Morri, an international business consultant who often does work for the bank and is one of the people behind the petition. “I like to put my fingers on them and flip through them.”
Page-flipping is being replaced by mouse-clicking. Over the past six years, the World Bank has increasingly made its publications available free online, meaning a bookstore isn’t central to its mission. It posts not only the finished reports but also the raw data and research that went into producing them.
“We want people around the world to have access to our knowledge, and we opened our bookstore at a time before the Internet had spread globally,” bank spokesman David Theis wrote in an email. He added: “We aren’t about selling books in Washington — we want to spread knowledge in Burkina Faso.”
Not everyone accepts the argument that the world’s knowledge is just a few easy mouse clicks away.
“That is so untrue,” said Mike Goldberg, a microfinance expert who has worked at the bank for 22 years. “Anything junky might be a few mouse clicks away. But anything of high quality that’s technically up to date, it’s much harder to find that in the jungle of the Web now. If you go to the InfoShop, it’s fairly selective. You know you’re getting the latest, the best, the well thought-out.”
There’s a sense of careful curation to the InfoShop. You may not find Stephen King, but you will find someone even scarier: Thomas Piketty. Plus, you can get tiny desk flags from different nations ( $5, including base) and
T-shirts that say, “End Poverty.”
On a recent afternoon I encountered Eric Lewis perusing the offerings. “It’s a great place to come in and browse,” said Eric, who likes the foreign fiction as well as nonfiction books about the Middle East, a region he visits for his job as an international lawyer.
Other typical customers include World Bank employees; staffers from the State Department, the White House and the U.S. Treasury; and students and professors from nearby George Washington University.
The occasional tourist wanders in, too. “They come in because I put the cheap books up front,” said Guy Brussat, the store’s book buyer, one of two full-time employees. (There are also three part-timers.)
“I’ll say one thing: They never censored me,” Guy said of the bank’s management. He still remembers the time a rather countercultural fellow stormed in and accused the store of being a mouthpiece for the bank. Guy took him to a shelf and pointed out a book called “10 Reasons to Abolish the IMF and the World Bank.”
It’s unclear what will become of the space after the store closes in October. Some World Bank employees told me that they heard it would be used for offices, allowing the bank to move staff out of rented buildings. The Washington City Paper reported it will be used for events. David said no final decision has been made.
The bookstore’s fans hope the petition might move the bank’s management to reconsider. That seems unlikely. David wrote in an email: “We understand that people have an emotional connection to this bookstore, as they did to the Borders that closed several years ago on L Street and the countless other shops around the country and around the world. But our mission is not on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 18th Street. It is in the health clinics and schools and rural villages in the poorest corners of the world.”
True enough. And yet, won’t something be lost, some only-in-Washington wonkery, or perhaps the possibility that a book bought in the InfoShop might end up changing policy in some faraway land?
Guy recalls how during one of the bank’s annual meetings, the oil minister from an African country came in wearing colorful national dress. Trailed by his security entourage, he swept through the store, pointing out books: this one, that one. In the end it was more than 100 titles. At the cash register, one of his underlings pulled a fist-size roll of $100 bills from his pocket and peeled off several thousand dollars.
That anecdote may illustrate the excesses of African oil ministers more than it does some patrons’ affection for the World Bank InfoShop, but what a great anecdote — and not the sort of thing you’re likely to witness at Barnes & Noble on Rockville Pike.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.