November 14, 2013 | 6:10pm EST
“Esteemed city institution” and “DuPont’s replacement ritual for church” are among the words of praise for the long-running bookstore and café, Kramerbooks & Afterwords, a D.C. must-see nestled comfortably on the cosmopolitan Connecticut Avenue. A well-oiled machine, the establishment first opened in 1976 and has since been coined as the first bookstore in the country to feature a full bar and an adjacent restaurant. Its alliterative slogan, “Serving Latte to the Literati since 1976,” gleans some truth; the bookstore is also credited for being the first to serve espresso and cappuccino to its customers. Discerning eyes will recoil in defeat as they enter; Kramerbooks is deserving of its praise and location.
Upon entering, the wood-clad interior illicts a comforting and casual feel to both newcomers and frequenters (I observed tourists and D.C. natives alike leaning against the shelves, elbows propped, leafing through intriguing reads). The overstuffed ledges and nooks are unpretentious, as the books converge playfully in horizontal and vertical stacks against the walls. Void of any flashy advertisements, the store is elegant in its simplicity and allows customers to stumble upon their own finds. The unobtrusive air it offers gives clear explanation of its national exposure during the Lewinsky scandal when it refused to disclose records of Lewinsky’s purchases from the store, a clear indicator of the priority it gives to customer service.
The inventory is varied, but leaves room for plenty of paperback fiction and travel writing. The latter is a particularly captivating section, exciting recounts of European travels by bike and treks through France’s cuisine being among the best selling (One particularly intriguing find was Remembrance of Things Paris: Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet edited by former Gourmet magazine editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl). France dominates the section, with more than 30 books to choose from about Parisian travel. At least two fellow browsers picked up Paris to the Past: Traveling through French history by Train during my visit. Other choices include stories of South America and the Middle East, but few featured stories were from the African continent. Bill Bryson, an expert traveler and superb writer, is also a store favorite.
The children’s and young adults’ sections are equally impressive in their tasteful selections (finally, Captain Underpants wasn’t the first thing to see). Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and Falling Up are given a prime spotlight in the center shelving. Classics by Eric Carle and Ian Falconer are also among best in the collection. Seeing the flash of pink lipstick from the Eloise cover was enough to provide a momentary flashback to my childhood and I was reminded of the simpler reads that brought me so much joy. In the adolescents’ area, it was pleasing to see that superficial reads like The Clique series were nowhere in sight. The titles, ranging from Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Beezus and Sarah Dessen’s The Truth About Forever, signify the message that Kramerbooks is attempting to say to its younger customers: substance is key.
Despite its location in the heart of a political district, Kramerbooks displays no such partisanship in its inventory. Though there are books to satisfy the future politician, they do not represent an overbearing presence in the store as one might imagine. Of course, the newest from Bill O’Reilly and Chris Matthews take center stage in the front, but most people flocked to the likes of James Patterson to satisfy their leisure time. However, in light of the recent government shutdown, a few customers seemed to be inspired and walked away with Ira Shapiro’s The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis.
The second half of the establishment’s name, Afterwords Café, is not to be missed. Almost completely hidden if one walks into the front entrance of the bookstore, the café is bumped out into a mod interior with a sky-high ceiling and mirrored walls and extends into an outdoor patio setting. The menu is surprisingly sophisticated and vegetarian friendly, and is noted for its healthy alternatives. According to a waitress, the weekend brunches and Saturday evening suppers are when the café is at its busiest. It is known to host many of Washington’s prominent politicians for lunch as well. For brunch, a lovely complimentary plate of assorted mini pastries and fruit is offered as a starter. The recommended crab cake sandwich was not overwhelming in size and had a side of tangy greens that complemented it well. A bustling and enthusiastic staff contributed greatly in making the dining experience exceptional.
Dining aside, Kramerbooks & Afterwords reminds D.C. that reading is an adventure. It is reminiscent of “The Shop Around the Corner” from the film You’ve Got Mail in its charm, but differs in that it will not be defeated by the corporate bookstore across the street. In other words, Kramerbooks is here to stay.
Address: 1517 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20036 Hours: 7:30 AM-1AM daily, 24 hours Friday & Saturday Live Music Wednesday-Saturday night.