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Georgetown bookstore finds niche in tough economy

By Melissa Major
On November 1, 2010

After Philip Levy kept his family waiting for six hours outside the famous Blackwell's Books in Oxford, England, he decided to open his own bookstore back home in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington D.C..                                                                                               

"I'd like to come up with something poetic, but the reality is that I was someone who wasn't really going anywhere, and my father was getting a little frustrated. But he knew I loved books," said Levy, 65, owner of Bridge Street Books, located on the 2800 block of Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest.                                                                                                                              

Levy opened Bridge Street Books in 1980, and was the sole employee for the first six months. The independent bookstore, which now has four part-time employees and two full-time employees including Levy, has been open seven non-holiday days a week, for the past thirty years.                                                                                                                                         

The two-floor bookstore, which is about 1000 square feet and carries about 30,000 titles, was renovated in 1991. About one-third of the first floor was added to the back of the store then, according to Rod Smith, the manager.                                                                        

Outside the store is a table with "unusual" books for sale, such as "Crime and Punishment" by Fyodor Dostoevsky for $3.50, according to Levy.                                                

Inside, jazz music plays. The store's walls are lined with floor to ceiling wooden bookshelves, each labeled with categories such as: women's studies, photography, arts, cultural theory, history, politics and literature.                                                                                         

The floor is lined with dingy gray carpeting, and the stairs are barely wide enough for two people to walk on side by side. From the first floor, the second floor can be seen through the opening where the original staircase used to be, according to Smith.                                        

Smith, a published poet who has taught classes in one of the top writing programs in the county at The University of Iowa, said he "does everything" as manager of the small store.       

"At other stores, there are different people for each task. Here, I buy the books, I put them away, I take the ones that didn't sell and put them back, and run the cash register," Smith said.  

Before Bridge Street Books opened, Levy received a standard backlist from the American Bookseller's Association, which depicted the contents of a standard bookstore.                      

"I took one look at that list and thought, ‘this is not going to be helpful at all.' I knew a lot about books, but not enough to stock a whole store," Levy said.                                       

Instead, he sat on the floor of Olsson's Books & Records, his favorite local bookstore, which has since closed with a small notepad and scribbled down titles of interesting books for five hours a day, five days straight.                                                                                                       

Now the store specializes in remainders, or books that are rare or no longer in print, according to Levy.                                                                                                                           

"Either we're snobby or creative, or both. We're certainly not a book store for everybody," said Levy.                                                                                                                

The customers are mainly middle-aged to older and foreign-born, as well as some college students, Smith said.                                                                                                  

"We get the kind of customers who don't fit their stereotype," Levy said.                         

Katy Bohinc, 27, works at a marketing firm two blocks away from Bridge Street Books and visits almost daily on her lunch break.                                                                                  

"You can be stimulated just by walking into this bookstore in a very positive way. Just by looking at the titles, you're going to see stuff that is interesting, challenging, inspiring and heartening. There's a strong intellectual rigor…its easy to engage with what's going on in here," Bohinc said.                                                                                                                     

"Promotion and marketing were never one of my strengths," Levy said with a hearty laugh.

Word of mouth is the biggest source of advertisement, and they also paid to post the store's name on message boards at Georgetown University, Levy said.                                                           

The store also has poetry readings once or twice a month, which helps get the word out, Smith said.                                                                                                                                            

The origin of the store's name is steeped in family and geographical history.                      

M Street, which is within a short walking distance from the bookstore, was originally named Bridge Street. This name withstood from 1751, when Georgetown was founded as a city separate from D.C., until 1895, when the streets in Georgetown were renamed, said Levy, as he referred to a framed vintage map on the wall.                                                                               

Bridgestreet was the name of a line of suits owned by Levy's father.  Levy, who was born just two blocks away, carried on the tradition, making the minor modification of separating the name into two words.                                                                                                               

Levy modeled Bridge Street Books after some of his favorite independent bookstores, such as St. Mark's Bookshop in New York City and Blackwell's Books.                           

Although large bookstore chains such as Barnes and Noble have a lot of power in the industry, the main competitors are Amazon, Walmart, Target and the Kindle, Levy said.                

Levy has resisted making technological changes in the way he runs business. Bridge Street Books' records weren't fully computerized until 2002, he said. Before that, all information was hand-written.                                                                                                                               

The recession was hard-hitting at the little bookstore.                                                          

"It's tough for us," said Levy.                                                                                               

The biggest challenge is "staying alive," according to Smith.                                               

"Some days everything's smooth and some days everything's a challenge," said Smith.

Although there are many hardships that come with owning a small business, there are also rewards, according to Levy.                                                                                                                

"We don't make a fortune here, but we get by. I just wanted to create a good bookstore…and I did it," said Levy. 


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