Books, Booze, and Brews at Busboys and Poets

Social Justice, or Self-Serving Gentrification?

Busboys and Poets, located on the corners of 14th and V st. NW, boast of a mission to reflect and support the community in which it resides.  Hosting events that feature local poets, authors, musicians, and social activists, the store strives to bring unity and peace to the U Street area, home to decades-long social unrest and racial clashes.

Courtesy of the Busboys and Poets website.

Courtesy of the Busboys and Poets website.

However, a self-proclaimed progressive bookstore/restaurant runs the risk of merely packaging social justice and cultural awareness into a neat bundle for a new crowd moving into the neighborhood: one that is richer, whiter, and in search of a cooler Starbucks.

While some praise the restaurant/bookstore as a hip and trendy addition to the neighborhood, others note that it comes across as a decent, busy restaurant with a progressive bookstore tacked on, almost as an afterthought.

After all, what do social justice and skinny-leg jeans have to do with each other?

I decided to find out for myself.  I quickly discovered that there are two different Busboys and Poets at 14th and V: the humming Saturday night hotspot for hipsters, and the laid-back Sunday morning getaway for stroller-pushing Moms and coffee addicts.  In the name of science, I researched both.

Stepping through an entryway overflowing with event bulletins on a Saturday night, I shouldered my way to a crowded bar and ordered a Woodchuck apple cider, my latest embarrassing obsession.  I turned and scanned the space for the bookstore.  I found it tucked away to the left of the bar, occupying about a quarter of the total space.  Sofas and armchairs sprawl across the majority of the space in front of the bar, and finding a spot in the restaurant area can be difficult.

I finally settled on a wooden bench in the bookstore.  The discomfort of the bench was mitigated by the guilty pleasure of drinking around so many books.  However, reading is not nearly so exciting at midnight when my hip-hopeful peers shout drunkenly to be heard over top-40 pop music, and a wooden bench is only comfortable for so long, guilty pleasure notwithstanding.  I decided to come back the next morning.

I found that the Sunday morning crowd was more relaxed and decidedly less drunk.  I easily found a seat at the bar and ordered a salad from a menu decorated with poems, mostly by Langston Hughes, for whom the bar is named.  The food and the service were unexceptional, though I took special note of the free Wi-Fi available.  I then wandered back to the bookstore, tucked away like a footnote.

The book nook is run by Teaching for Change, a not-for-profit association dedicated to promoting social justice and equality in the classroom.  The shelves are packed with a range of titles from graphic novels focusing on social justice to children’s books on hip hop to Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, a book that has received much media attention recently.  The bookstore boasts that long before Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez presented the book to President Obama, the “classic history” was available on its shelves.

While I do not disparage children’s books on social justice or leftist political works, I admit that they are outside of my scope, and therefore my perusal of the bookstore was limited to a few shelves, labeled simply “Literature,” on the right-hand side of the store.  I was impressed by the selection of works by local authors, from unknowns to widely regarded bastions of the D.C. literary community.  However, there are few copies of each book, and finding titles seemed hit-or-miss; the tightly-packed shelves seemed designed for browsing.

I found several of George Pelecanos’s recent works appearing alongside DC-centric compilations edited by the award-winning author and producer of the The Wire.  Skimming the packed shelves, I discovered all three of Edward P. Jones’ books, including Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Known World, shelved next to other local authors.

I chose five titles to take home, all from DC authors: Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children, both collections of short stories from Edward P. Jones; Lost and Found, by Carolyn Parkhurst; The Turnaround, authored by George Pelecanos; and D.C. Noir 2: The Classics, edited by Pelecanos and featuring some sixteen short stories by Langston Hughes, Edward P. Jones, Marita Golden, and Richard Wright, among others.

Although I enjoyed the food and the fiction, I was left with the nagging question: Are they trying too hard?  In a neighborhood that is constantly criticized for gentrification, is Busboys and Poets really any different from the local Starbucks?

Boyce Upholt, a resident of Columbia Heights, observes that while the restaurant appears to thrive, the rest of the space does not seem to incorporate the bookstore’s mission of social justice and multicultural awareness.

“I’m not sure the people who these social justice books are looking to ‘save’ would feel all that comfortable in the restaurant—or if some of the well-off patrons would be all that welcoming,” Upholt candidly comments.

The 14th and V St. Busboys and Poets Bookstore is open from 10 am to midnight, Sunday through Thursday, and 10 am to 2:30 am on Friday and Saturday.

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