A Literary Haven Blossoms Amid Washington Hubbub

Chapters bookstore draws top literary names for readings

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

CHAPTERS bookstore is like a literary salon that happens to sell books. Every year on July 10, there is a birthday party for French writer Marcel Proust, with nostalgic madeleines for fans to nibble as they talk about "The Remembrance of Things Past."

More recently, the owners of Chapters decided to introduce a George Eliot Memorial Lecture and enticed writers Christopher Hitchens and Carolyn Heilbrun to each do one "because we just love George Eliot's books."

Terri Merz and Robin Diener, the co-owners of Chapters, are "blissed out" about books, and they created a store to share that feeling.

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One of their most popular ventures has been an author calendar they call "a literary to-do" that invites customers to evening appearances of current authors who read from their new books, take questions from the audience, and talk about their work.

The list, which started small with off-beat authors, has grown to include such well-known writers as Edna O'Brien, Thomas McGuane, Amy Tan, Nadine Gordimer, George Will, William Kennedy, and Ward Just.

The store's speciality is literary fiction and poetry; as Ms. Merz points out, "We've been very fortunate, because when we first started several years ago, we asked publishers to send us novelists and poets. And they thought, `Oh, Washington is a political city, why would we want to spend the money to do that?' But it has really blossomed now, and there is a competition for authors of all sorts to do readings.

"It's different from the sort of best-seller-at-noon [book] signing, and that still goes on, and it's very profitable, but we don't tend to do things like that." Merz continues. "Tom Clancy goes and stands at Crown [Books] and signs books for two hours. But here you have a chance to hear an author read their work and ask them a question."

Their list of writers for the fall season includes Susan Sontag, Gloria Naylor, Rosellean Brown, Michael Dorris, and Paul Auster.

Among their customers are many in the media.

The two women met at Georgetown University's Junior Year Abroad program in Nice. After college they began working at the Georgetown branch of Olsen's, a popular book and record store, first as salesclerks, then moving up to managers, buyers, learning the business before they opened their own.

Merz explains, "We wanted to just carry the books that we were interested in, and books that we aspired to read, and also books that seem to appeal to people who buy a lot of books, the sort of eclectic general reader who likes to keep up with fiction and poetry, which are our strong selling points."

Merz and Ms. Diener also agreed on which books to keep off their store's shelves. "We didn't want to have self-help, we didn't want to have computer books. In other words it was the process of weeding out things we personally weren't interested in...."

Both women cared deeply about books as children. Merz remembers a childhood in Pittsburgh "trooping to the bookmobile and getting armloads of Babar and everything." Diener remembers growing up in Baltimore where she says the idea of owning books didn't really occur to her.

Chapters started out in a small shop on I street, a couple of blocks from the White House. "When we first arrived, people said `You're never going to survive in downtown Washington with the kinds of books you're selling." Merz says. They have not only survived, but flourished. They recently moved to larger quarters on K Street a few blocks away. Loyal customers helped them move the hundreds of books to the new space. Carpeted throughout in spruce green, with plants, flowers, skylights at the rear, large photos of famous authors, and graphics, it has the look of a large, comfortable living room.

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