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Kramerbooks: After Dark Bestseller

By Eric Brace
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 15 1996; Page N10

IT'S HARD TO imagine Washington nightlife without Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe (1517 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202/387-1400). Yet it was only 20 years ago that we somehow lived without it. Imagine those days, walking up Connecticut Avenue, north of Dupont Circle and not having that huge, inviting picture window beckon. No stacks of books. No bright lights. No waiters in Hawaiian shirts slinging cappuccino and much more. No music. No art. A bleak picture, indeed.

In August 1976, Kramerbooks opened its doors. Two months later, Afterwords Cafe opened in the same building, and an institution was born. To a city still drunk with Bicentennial celebrations, Kramer's (as it's generally known) was the perfect place, like an espresso after an eight-course meal.

They're celebrating their 20th anniversary this weekend by giving away a free slice of "three truffle" chocolate cake to every Saturday and Sunday cafe customer. (On Saturday, you'd better arrive before 4 p.m. because they'll be shutting their doors for an in-house birthday party, opening again at 9 a.m. on Sunday.)

It was the brainchild of partners Bill Kramer, whose father had founded Sidney Kramer Books, and Henry Posner, who got out of the book business to open Afterwords. "In part we helped establish a street life in Dupont Circle," says Posner. "There just wasn't much nightlife, and originally we were open 24 hours, so it became a destination, more than just the neighborhood place we expected it to be."

It introduced or popularized in Washington a rash of things now taken for granted, starting with the very idea of a bookstore/cafe. It's where many had their first real espresso and cappuccino, their first microbrews, their first taste of Haagen-Dazs, their first decent bagels. "We were busing bagels from New York because we couldn't get good ones here," says Posner. "We'd go down to the Greyhound station in the morning to pick them up."

While the "open all night" sign now only goes up Fridays and Saturdays, the 1 a.m. closing time the other five nights still draws folks with late night munchies or a jones for a good book. In 1984, the cafe expanded onto the 19th Street sidewalk, and in 1991 they took over a neighbor, Cafe Splendide, and expanded even more.

While two Kramer's sites in Arlington failed, Posner says they're not giving up on the idea of more locations. "We want to be very careful to not lose any of the elements that make this place unique," he explains. "We want to keep the full kitchen, the full service bookstore, the music, the art. You can't just sell books and coffee. It's a cutthroat business now with the big book chains in this market."

And of course you have to have the right mix of people working for you, like manager Michael Sean Winters, whose intercom calls for people waiting for tables have practically become performances in themselves over the years; and chef Pete Barich, whose Asian/French/Italian/American menu keeps evolving in pleasing directions. And a crop of twenty-something waiters who seem genuinely happy to be running around like headless chickens, but looking darn sharp in those Hawaiian shirts.

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