A tour of D.C.’s used bookstores

Idle Time Books, located at 18th Street and Northwest, had books lining its walls and staircases. Photo by Molly Morris for The Writers' Bloc.

By Molly Morris and Colby Smith

Staff Writers

It began with a quest for Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey.

A fellow reporter and I were searching local used bookstores for the classics, tramping through the streets of the Adams Morgan district of Washington, D.C. on a Friday. I had recently decided to read Homer’s classic epics.

We first visited Idle Time Books at 18th street Northwest, which had a sign on the door stating, “This is a cell phone free zone. Just relax.”

We walked in the two-story building, with used books lining the walls from floor to ceiling, as well as the staircase and levels in between. There was also a modest used record and CD collection for sale—stocked with Rick Springfield LPs and scores of other more obscure artists.

The overall selection of books at Idle Time was one of the most impressive we encountered. A large fiction and poetry section was complimented by sections like “Cults and 60s Drug Beat” and “Cats.”

Though the section on mythology was limited (I didn’t find The Iliad or The Odyssey), the majority of the books were marked down to half of the retail price, and were all in good condition.

We left Idle Time Books empty handed and made our way a few blocks down to Red Onion Records & Books at the corner of T Street and 18th.

Beneath a narrow flight of stairs was an astonishingly small, one-roomed space. Customers first see a few bookshelves lined with a modest and unsorted selection. Literature is not the primary feature of Red Onion Records & Books. The small room was divided by many used CDs and numerous crates of used records. The selection was mostly classic rock, but funk, soul, new wave, country and folk also had their space. We spent the majority of our time picking through the Bob Dylan and Beatles sections.

Colby Smith looks for used books in Second Story Books. Photo by Molly Morris for The Writers' Bloc.

The prices of records were so low that we couldn’t help but make a few purchases. I left with Prince’s Purple Rain for $3, Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends for $5, with the original album poster included and The Beatles Greatest Hits ’62-’66 for $8. My fellow reporter also left with The Who’s Who’s Next for $3.

I also found The Iliad for $2.50.

Next we visited Second Story Books, located on the corner of P Street and 20th. This store specializes in rare and antique books of all kinds. You can find antique medical texts, atlases and a $500 copy of The Iliad.

The store also had a healthy selection of more affordable used books. The fiction section was rather small, but the range of subjects made up for it. There were books on any subject you could imagine — art history, geography, travel, politics, music theory and even a shelf labeled “Dolls.”

Second Story Books also had a modest collection of prints, vinyl records and an impressive used CD collection.

If you hope to pick up a novel or a poetry collection, we wouldn’t recommend going to Second Story Books first. Chances are, you won’t find a specific book you have in mind, but if you’re looking for a book on about any subject, you can’t go wrong there.

We concluded our tour at Books for America, just a few blocks down from Second Story Books, on the corner of P Street and 22nd.

Books for America’s selection was the smallest of all. Their fiction section was larger than that of Second Story Books, but overall the store felt lacking in terms of selection. But the store did sell a number of comic books, VHS tapes and DVDs.

The clerk rung us up while completely engrossed in her phone conversation.

“I’m really sorry,” she said after hanging up. “But that was someone that’s giving us a lot of books. It’s pathetic, but I’m really excited.”

Books for America’s employees were pleasant and polite, and the store had a curious little section labeled “Local Flavor,” featuring fiction and poetry set in and around D.C.

My fellow reporter couldn’t help but pick up a collection of D.C. short stories entitled D.C. Noir, which was difficult to resist at $3. Low prices was one of Books for America’s strong points, and I managed to find The Odyssey for $3, as well.

At the end of our book adventures, we bought three books for $12.

View more photos of Morris and Smith’s used bookstore tour here.

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

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