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Used bookstores play cultural role as national chains leave

China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-02-06 12:20

When Barnes & Noble closed its downtown Washington store in the Thurman Arnold Building on Jan 2, 2016, the sadness was evident in the community as it lost the national chain's only local outlet.

The two-story store was just three blocks from my office in the National Press Building and a good place to relax. Even the spacious Starbucks on the second floor of the store emanated rich cultural flavors. The current tenants there - Nordstrom Rack and Saks Off 5th - are no comparison.

Absent such national chain bookstores, Washington is still a great city with small and lovely independent bookstores, including many used bookstores that are treasure troves.

The Politics & Prose bookstore on Connecticut Avenue is an amazing place for author events, from personalities such as Bill Clinton and J.K. Rowling to a recent talk by Wendy Kiang-Spray about her new book: The Chinese Kitchen Garden.

Surprises also come often from the audiences, some of which are clearly as knowledgeable, if not more, about the subject matter as some of the authors.

Living in the Woodley Park neighborhood, I love an after-dinner hike in the Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle areas. Besides the area's colorful restaurant and bar scene, some of the used bookstores are pleasant places to stop by.

Not too long ago and after a two-mile walk, I dropped by Second Story Books on P Street. One book quickly caught my attention; it was Assignment China by Julian Schuman and published in 1956. Schuman was a veteran journalist who first went to China in 1947 and worked for The China Press, ABC and later China Weekly Review, along with well-known journalist Bill Powell. Both were persecuted during the McCarthy Era when they returned to the US.

Schuman later joined China Daily and was on the founding team of China Daily before it was officially launched on June 1, 1981.

As a young reporter working briefly at China Daily's Beijing headquarters in late 1987, I had never had a chance to talk to Schuman, but saw him working hard on the sports desk. His book offered a first-hand observation of China after the 1949 revolution, mostly in my hometown Shanghai.

The delightful and surprising encounters with China hands like Schuman are many in used bookstores. Just on Saturday afternoon, when I stopped by Idle Time Books in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, I came across Jerome Cohen's 1968 book The Criminal Process in the People's Republic of China 1949-1963.

Having interviewed Cohen - a leading scholar on China's legal system and now a professor of law at New York University - for a profile story back in 2010, I knew his stories of starting his China legal study in the beginning of the 1960s.

One level directly below the shelf was a light-gray hardcover, China's Red Army Marches, by Agnes Smedley. Printed in 1934 by Vanguard Press, the book has yellowed greatly but to me was a treasure rediscovered.

Located on 18th Street NW adjacent to many bars and restaurant, Idle Time provides food for thought. A few boxes and shelves outside the store contain many free copies or $1-3 copies for book lovers.

Also in the neighborhood are Potter's House and Kramerbooks & Afterwords Caf, also great places for a relaxing hangout for book lovers.

I know there are many similar fascinating used bookstores in other neighborhoods in Washington or in nearby Virginia and Maryland.

Bookstores are facing a tough time in the age of e-books and online shopping. I, too, have bought many books in their Kindle editions in recent years. But physical copies, despite the inconvenience to carry around, do provide a more intimate feel.

This is especially true with those books in used bookstores, where many copies were printed long before Kindle was invented. The yellowish pages bring readers back in time.

The American Booksellers Association says that membership in the group, which is a barometer of the health of independent bookstores, has grown for seven consecutive years. For 2016, sales were up almost 5 percent over 2015.

The wonder of used bookstores in Washington and many other US cities is something many Chinese cities could learn from to enrich the cultural atmosphere along with their fast-changing skylines.

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