Philip G. Levy, the founder and proprietor of Bridge Street Books in Georgetown, a store that opened in 1980 and was among a handful of independent Washington-area booksellers remaining in the era of large chains and online retailers, died Oct. 12 at a hospital in the District. He was 72.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said a brother, Richard Levy.
Bridge Street catered to a broad audience of readers, selling books on classical philosophy, Renaissance art, 20th-century politics, Victorian poetry and modern espionage. The store, Washington Post syndicated columnist George Will wrote in 1989, “is a small island of individuality where [Mr. Levy’s] tastes and hunches are offered to the eclectic whims of bookstore browsers.”
He specialized in books, Will added, “you would not find in the sort of bookstores that sell board games and greeting cards.” British singer-songwriter Elvis Costello once called the Bridge Street bookstore a place with an “eye for putting out books that might have escaped your notice.”
Among Bridge Street Books’bestsellers are “Berlin Noir” (1994) by Philip Kerr, which Mr. Levy described as “Raymond Chandler meets Humphrey Bogart”; “Origins of Totalitarianism” (1951), written by the political philosopher Hannah Arendt; and “Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy” (1997) by art critic and scholar Dave Hickey.
Family lore and stories told by friends have it that the origins of Bridge Street Books lie in a family trip to England in the 1970s. Mr. Levy spent most of his time in British bookstores, so a relative suggested, “Why don’t you open your own bookstore?”
Located on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, on the west bank of Rock Creek Park at the entrance to Georgetown, the bookstore was a venue where the owner did more than sell books.
He sat by the front door, wearing a Washington Nationals baseball cap — or perhaps the football cap of his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin at Madison — reading the paper. As customers came in, he grilled them.
Where were they from? If they spoke with a British accent, he would ask them about British soccer. (Mr. Levy’s favorite team was Liverpool.) He would want to know what books and authors they liked, and what they liked about them. Rarely did he miss a chance to engage in an argument.
Chris Vitiello, a poet now living in North Carolina, was a Bridge Street Books customer years ago when he was growing up in Springfield, Va. He used to browse in the poetry section, dreaming of becoming a poet. In an online tribute to Mr. Levy, he recalled a time when he brought a stack of books to the checkout desk.
“I remember Philip ringing me up,” Vitiello wrote. “He would peer over his glasses and mumble ‘poet’s discount’ and knock like $8 off the total.”
Philip Goldiner Levy was born in Washington on Dec. 18, 1944. His father was a clothing store operator and later an investor in Georgetown property. He graduated from the private Sidwell Friends School in 1963 and from the University of Wisconsin in 1968.
Before opening Bridge Street Books, Mr. Levy managed Marlboro Books in Washington. Before that, he worked on the staff of Ralph Nader’s Impeach Nixon organization in 1973.
“In his bulky sweaters and unpressed slacks he looks like what he is: a 60s radical who has come to terms with commerce,” Will wrote of him. “Levy recalled with middle-aged bemusement an early crisis of conscience. He wanted to specialize in literature of the left. Should he sell Henry Kissinger’s memoirs? He did.”
Survivors include his brother, Richard Levy of Washington. He never married, and for most of his life he lived alone, almost as a recluse, friends said.
A niece once described him as a “gregarious hermit.”
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