A Store as Unique as Books It Sells: Lantern Leads Way to the Rare, Quirky and Specialized

By Tischler, Gary | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 18, 1996 | Go to article overview

A Store as Unique as Books It Sells: Lantern Leads Way to the Rare, Quirky and Specialized


Tischler, Gary, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


"Let's see what we've got here," Agnes Clark says, opening the morning's first boxes at the Lantern bookstore, which she co-manages.

She pulls out an old Ralph Waldo Emerson boxed set from the Library of America. (These are not to be confused with the more recent blue-body-and-black-cover editions.)

"Fifteen might be reasonable, don't you think?" she asks, handling the books as if their weight figures into the price.

This kind of find is not that unusual. For the ladies at the Lantern, or the Bryn Mawr Bookshop, in Georgetown, it's typical.

Book lovers are a nervous lot these days. They watch with alarm the rising tide of chains - Crown Books, Borders Books & Music, Barnes & Noble, et al. - and see their impact on the morale of the independent sellers. Their nightmares are vast aisles of superstores bulging with nothing but titles by John Grisham, Danielle Steel, Ellen DeGeneres and Howard Stern.

Real book lovers like their bookstores to be human-sized: eccentric, eclectic and not too electric. Enough light to leave room for dark corners and nooks is just fine. This is where secondhand, rare and used, or antiquarian, bookstores come in.

Secondhand bookstores have all sorts of charms to recommend them, but the biggest is that each is unique unto itself. It's here that you're apt to run across those big-print, little-sized, picture-on-every-page Tarzan books. Here you can find a complete paperback stack of Thomas Costain, first printings of Mickey Spillane paperbacks and John Gunther's INSIDE books.

These shops are about ambience and people. At Second Story Books in Dupont Circle, contemporary bohemianism makes a last stand, with background music including everything from the Chieftains to old Delta blues to opera arias. In Georgetown, amble up the dark stairs of the Rock Creek Book Store, for instance, and spend all day talking about the finer points of Gen. George McClellan's mistakes at Antietam.

Washington-area book lovers have a lot of places where they can console themselves and worship at various musty, dusty shrines of their passion. But in a wide range of bookstores where uniqueness is not unique, the Lantern indeed remains, well, unique.

* * *

The Lantern's characteristic yellow flag - the singular BOOKS sign - is flying. Downstairs, where the first boxes ended up, Ms. Clark greets fellow co-manager Lois Spadafora, who is peering at the computer screen.

"It's from the Stone Age," Ms. Spadafora says of the machine. "We're hoping to have something a little more up-to-date donated to us." In the meantime, this computer stores subscription lists, customer lists, books and prices.

For more than 20 years now, at three different locations in Georgetown, the Lantern has been the only bookstore in the area staffed entirely by volunteers, mostly women. Most, but not all, graduated from Bryn Mawr College, and all of the store's proceeds go toward the funding of its scholarships. The stock is entirely from tax-deductible donations, often accepted sight unseen.

"You never know what you're going to get," Ms. Clark says. Elizabeth Ridauer, a Lantern volunteer, says, "Everyday is like Christmas here. It's like opening presents all of the time."

At the Lantern, old friends from reading days of yore remain very much alive: popular writers who were the Stephen Kings and Anne Rices of their day: Kenneth Robert, Ross McDonald, Erle Stanley Gardner, Kathleen Windsor, Ben Ames Williams and Paul Gallico. There is one lonely little rack of paperbacks - old paperbacks published before the companies were eaten up by conglomerates - carrying familiar emblems: the Cardinal, the kangaroo of Pocket Books and the rooster of Bantam. There are Fawcett Gold Medal originals, Avons, Pyramids and Permas. These books, the way they look and feel, with their steamy covers, are like photographs from yearbooks. …

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