Carolyn Parkhurst is the author of The Nobodies Album (Doubleday, 2010), the New York Times best-sellers Lost and Found (Little, Brown, 2006) and The Dogs of Babel (Little, Brown, 2003), and the children’s book Cooking With Henry and Elliebelly (Feiwel & Friends, 2010). She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children.
I never expected to end up in Washington, D.C. My feelings about politics and government are a lot like my feelings about photosynthesis or the circulatory system: I acknowledge their importance without wanting to spend any real time dwelling on them. When I moved here as a recent college graduate in 1992, it was because my boyfriend was attending grad school in College Park, and because I figured that as a writer (a title that was more hopeful than descriptive at that point), I could live anywhere. But the city worked its charm on me in the usual ways—an unexpected glimpse of the Washington Monument in the middle of a humdrum day, a rain of petals in my hair after a springtime walk—and somehow, all these years later, it’s the only place that feels like home.
For me, the city is full of the kind of literary landmarks that no one else really cares about, the personal ones, my own life becoming a transparency laid over the larger map: the group house on R Street, through whose mail slot slipped hundreds of manila SASEs holding rejection letters from publications big and small. The food court in the Old Post Office Pavilion, where I ate lunch nearly every day the summer I interned at the National Endowment for the Arts. The strange little wedge-shaped Starbucks that seems to inhabit a traffic island in nearby Rosslyn, Virginia, where I wrote the last pages of all three of my novels. The bench at the National Zoo where I went to write a few times during a summer when I was on the run from the temptations of Wi-Fi. The house in Glover Park where I learned, on an ordinary day at home with my five-month-old son, that I’d sold my first novel. The Thai restaurant we ordered a celebratory dinner from that night. The nearby Whole Foods that was offering a special on irises, prompting my husband—the same guy I moved here to be with—to bring home eleven separate bouquets of them.
But if I can manage to drag myself out of my own story for a moment, I can identify some of the other important places as well, the ones that have relevance to a larger group of writers and readers. It’s a beautiful, vibrant, creative city, whether or not you’re interested in learning more about the circulatory system.
Open since 1984, Politics & Prose Bookstore (5015 Connecticut Avenue NW) serves as a busy literary hub and meeting place, hosts dozens of author events every month, and offers a fabulous selection, a knowledgeable staff, classes—from Hemingway, the Early Years to Journal Making—book clubs, and discussion groups. I’ve written large chunks of my last couple of books in the downstairs café, Modern Times, where I almost always seem to run into someone I know. I’ve read there three times, once for each novel; seeing my name on the monthly calendar has always been a huge thrill. The store also has a fantastic children’s section, but don’t leave your kids to browse while you explore the grown-up areas; a prominently displayed sign warns that “unattended children will be given an espresso and a puppy.”
Kramerbooks & Afterwords (1517 Connecticut Avenue NW) has been a hip, lively Dupont Circle fixture since 1976; you may remember the Subpoenaed for Bookselling shirts they printed up to commemorate the small but intriguing role the store played in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In my early days in D.C., Kramerbooks was my neighborhood bookstore, and going there now always makes me remember how fervently I hoped I’d be able to walk in and see my own books someday. It’s open late, and the café has a full bar and live music. Books in the front window are displayed in appealing, waist-high piles; inside, the store seems to be almost bursting with good books. Go ahead and try to walk past without getting sucked in.
Bridge Street Books (2814 Pennsylvania Avenue NW) occupies a red-brick row house on a pleasant, tree-shaded block in Georgetown. It specializes in poetry, philosophy, politics, film, and cultural studies and provides great service if you need to track down an obscure title. The store’s website offers this as a rationale for shopping there: “Because you could be the next Sarah Palin. And you don’t want Tina Fey making fun of you.”
One More Page Books (2200 North Westmoreland Street), just over Key Bridge in Arlington, Virginia, offers a bright spot amid all the fretting about the future of bookselling: It’s a brand-new independent bookstore, small but cheery, run by a staff who are well informed and passionate about books (and about wine and chocolate, which they also sell). Stop by to browse or check out the calendar, which includes book discussions, readings, author talks, a young writers group, and a story time for kids. I’ll be reading there October 12. If you happen to be in town, drop by.
Idle Time Books (2467 Eighteenth Street NW), in operation since 1981, and Second Story Books (2000 P Street NW), which opened in 1973 and claims to be one of the largest used- and rare-book stores in the world, are two of D.C.’s best stores—ideal for getting lost in on a rainy day.
And I can’t resist a brief note about what’s missing from this list. When I first moved to D.C., I got a job at a B. Dalton Bookseller at the corner of Eighteenth and K streets. I worked there for three years, hand-selling novels by Jeffrey Eugenides and Jeannette Winterson, and weathering periodic stampedes whenever a new Grisham title was released. Whenever I couldn’t find a book that a customer was looking for, I’d consult the list we kept next to the cash registers, which gave the addresses and phone numbers for a vast amount of the city’s independent and specialty bookstores. I found it amazing that one city could support so many different types of bookstores. We sent customers to Sidney Kramer Books for economic and political titles, and to the Newsroom for foreign newspapers and periodicals that fell outside the realm of “general interest.” We sent them to Chapters: A Literary Book Store, for serious readers and students of literature, and to Mystery Books, where I once caught a glimpse of Bill Clinton, after he’d seen the store from the window of his limousine and asked the driver to stop. We referred people to the Cheshire Cat and A Likely Story for children’s books, Lambda Rising for gay and lesbian titles, and Lammas for anything feminist. We suggested they try Olsson’s, a much-loved local chain, which had nine locations at its peak. And for scientific and technical books, we sent them to Reiter’s (1900 G Street NW), the only one in this group that still survives today.
The legendary Busboys and Poets (2021 Fourteenth Street NW)—whose name is a tribute to Langston Hughes, who worked as a busboy at D.C.’s Wardman Park Hotel in the 1920s—houses a small bookstore, but its real function is to serve as a gathering place and artistic hub for the city’s racially and culturally diverse literary community. It’s both a restaurant and lounge—try the sweet potato fries—and an event venue, hosting several different series of poetry readings, slams, and wildly popular open-mike nights (including one with American Sign Language interpretation, one for queer-friendly work, and one for poets under the age of twenty). I appeared on a panel here once, which made me feel about ten times cooler than I am; as I was leaving, I was amazed by the gargantuan line for open-mike night that snaked through the restaurant and out the front door. Score one for Busboys and Poets; score minus one for anyone who thinks that poetry readings are dry and boring.
“Part guild, part artistic support group, and part performing troupe,” Story League is a relatively new presence in the D.C. literary scene, but it’s gaining fans rapidly. Cofounders SM Shrake and Cathy Alter audition would-be storytellers—anyone can try out; past participants include writers, comics, and actors—and then help them hone their skills in preparation for one of the league’s popular storytelling shows. It makes for an incredibly entertaining evening. Events are held at various venues around the city and beyond. Check out some of the previous performances here. One of these days, I might work up the courage to try out.
I spent three years at American University (4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW) getting an MFA in creative writing, so I have a special fondness for the program’s Visiting Writers Series. The schedule is always a lively mix of emerging and established authors; former visiting writers and writers-in-residence include Grace Paley, Amy Bloom, Andre Dubus III, and Tim O’Brien. (And, as a nice bonus that won’t mean much to anyone but me: In the course of my research for this guide, I discovered that I’m on the MFA program’s Wall of Fame!)
Workshops and Conferences
For more than thirty years the Writer’s Center (4508 Walsh Street) in nearby Bethesda, Maryland, has been offering workshops for writers of all genres, at every level of experience. The onsite bookstore boasts “one of the largest selections of literary journals on the mid-Atlantic coast,” and the center hosts events ranging from readings and open-mike nights to “Leesburg Idol,” in which contestants anonymously submit the first page of their novel to be read aloud in front of an audience and a panel of author-judges, who then select a winner. During my first few years in D.C., I took about a dozen fiction-writing workshops here (including several taught by local literary icon Richard Peabody, whose Mondo Barbie [St. Martin’s, 1993] anthology I’d read and loved before I moved here). The Writer’s Center was a lifeline for me during those years, providing support and deadlines, and connecting the dots between my day job selling books and my life ambition to write them.
Every year George Washington University invites an established fiction writer or poet—Lucille Clifton, Cornelius Eady, and Ed Skoog are among those who’ve previously held the appointment—to spend two semesters in D.C., as part of the Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Residence program. In addition to teaching students, the writer-in-residence offers a free writing workshop each semester that’s open to the larger community. Fellow D.C. novelist Leslie Pietrzyk makes a habit of posting the application (accepted in August and December) on her blog; otherwise those interested in applying can contact the program to request more information: email@example.com.
Every year D.C.-based Barrelhouse, the nonprofit organization and biannual literary magazine that strives to “bridge the gap between serious art and pop culture,” teams up with local magazines Baltimore Review and the Potomac Review to hold the conference Conversations and Connections: Practical Advice on Writing, which features speed-dating with editors sessions, panel discussions, and mingling with editors of “established and cutting-edge literary magazines and small presses.”
Split This Rock is a poetry organization focused on the role poets play in movements for social change. Its goals are (1) “to celebrate the poetry of witness and provocation being written, published, and performed in the United States today” and (2) “to call poets to a greater role in public life and to equip them with the tools they need to be effective advocates in their communities and in the nation.” The Split This Rock Poetry Festival takes place every other spring—the next one is scheduled for 2018—and on off years, the organization sponsors poetry contests, a discussion series, and the DC Youth Poetry Slam.
The National Book Festival, held this year in September, floods the Metro system annually with a swarm of passionate readers from all over the country. Organized and sponsored by the Library of Congress, it’s a head-spinning carnival of books, featuring readings from writers and poets of every stripe. The only problem is that it isn’t possible to see everything: How do you choose between Tomie de Paola and Russell Banks or Jim Lehrer and Toni Morrison?
The Library of Congress (10 First Street SE), the largest library in the world—and whose Poetry and Literature Center administers and oversees the office of poet laureate—holds more than thirty-three million books and other printed materials, offering the “most comprehensive record of human creativity and knowledge.” You can take a guided tour or visit on your own.
The Folger Shakespeare Library (201 East Capitol Street SE) contains the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare materials and a variety of other rare books, manuscripts, and works of art. Scholars and researchers can apply for a “reader’s card,” which allows access to some of the rarer and more fragile items. Casual visitors can browse the library’s permanent exhibitions, which include a First Folio of Shakespeare—one of the first collected editions of Shakespeare’s plays—and the temporary exhibit on display; currently, it’s Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible. The Folger library also hosts two renowned and wide-ranging reading series: the O. B. Hardison Poetry Series (upcoming readers include Robert Pinksy and Eavan Boland) and the PEN/Faulkner fiction reading series (sceduled readers include Monique Truong, Allegra Goodman, and Myla Goldberg). And if you’re ever in town on April 22 (which, as I’m sure you know, is Shakespeare’s birthday), stop by the Folger for cake, jugglers, Renaissance music, and sonnets.
The Museum of Unnatural History (3233 Fourteenth Street NW) serves as the storefront for 826DC, the D.C., branch of Dave Eggers’s 826 National, a literacy nonprofit dedicated to helping students (ages six to eighteen) develop their writing skills and teachers find ways to inspire their students to write. The museum itself—featuring a built-in cave and a display of rare animals—such as the weagle and the owlephant—is a fun place to visit for “dedicated unnaturalists and enthusiasts of history (that might not have ever happened).”
In the spring, high school students from all fifty states travel to D.C. for the National Finals of the Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest. Created in partnership by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, with the collaboration of state arts agencies, the competition awards cash prizes and school stipends to the winners. The finals are free and open to the public; in 2011, the top prize went to sixteen-year-old Youssef Biaz of Auburn, Alabama, for his recitation of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Filling Station.”
The building that is now the National Portrait Gallery (Eighth and F streets NW) once held the U.S. Patent Office where Walt Whitman worked; during his time there, the building also served as a makeshift Army hospital, where Whitman helped tend to wounded soldiers. Inside you can see a portrait of Whitman, which is now part of the portrait gallery’s impressive collection.
About fifteen miles outside of D.C., at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church (520 Veirs Mill Road), in a tiny, unassuming churchyard in the middle of busy Rockville, Maryland, is the gravestone of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda. Visitors can leave a penny or some flowers on the long marble slab engraved with the final line from The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Of course, this list barely scratches the surface of this city; it seems sometimes that it would be impossible to find a street corner here that hasn't been the site of some interesting or important event. But when I think about geography and history, I always return to the personal elements. Among the places I've left out are the landmarks that I don't know about, because they're notable only to someone else. Spend enough time here, and you'll begin to discover your own.