When people complain about College Park, they say this city lacks charm and character; that there’s nowhere to go except the bar; that Route 1 is soaked with chain stores. Did we forget that we have one of the suburban Washington’s most renowned local bookstores? We do – at least until later this month, when Vertigo Books shuts down for good.
Founded in 1991, Vertigo’s original location in Dupont Circle was already a local institution when a landlord sent its owners, Todd Stewart and Bridget Warren, packing. Nine years ago, they relocated to College Park because it was close to where they lived and closer to their customers in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, but even university professors warned them about coming here.
“We’d thought the area had changed enough,” said co-owner Warren in an interview. When they first visited College Park years earlier, she and Stewart didn’t believe the town began and ended with the bars. “There must be a side street where the coffeehouses and the galleries and the bookstores are,” Warren remembered thinking.
They made an attempt to reach out to the university, hoping to eke out a college town from the bar scene. There was a series of lectures in conjunction with the journalism school, scheduled in the afternoon rather than evenings so students would be more likely to attend. Events were announced with fliers and on the listservs for departments throughout the arts and humanities college.
Until this past fall, a handful of professors even ordered their books through Vertigo, giving many students their first introduction to the store. But, Warren lamented, “growth dwindled” during the years. The Vertigo Books blog lays the blame on chain stores and Internet retailers such as Amazon for their demise, but ignorance played a part, as well. I’ll bet that if you asked 10 undergrads if they’d ever been to the independent bookstore two doors down from where Wawa used to be, nine will probably respond: “You mean the Book Exchange?”
Vertigo Books is the kind of place I’ve been writing about all year: a “third place” where people can meet and hang out; an intellectually oriented business that attracts other businesses seeking creative people; a unique experience to make College Park a real destination. I’m angry to see that such an awesome place could close. And I’m angrier still to know that I have lived within walking distance of this place for four years now but visited it exactly twice. I want to mourn the passing of Vertigo Books, but I realize by not shopping there, I helped put the nails in the coffin.
But as the old adage says, “whenever God closes a door, he opens a window.” Stewart and Warren are giving out coupons for other local businesses in the hope that if they couldn’t help remake College Park, someone else will. And in the meantime, they’re selling their entire stock of books and throwing a wake this Saturday for the death of Vertigo Books – in the Irish tradition, which is more a celebration of what happened than mourning what could have been.
And for us, the students who spend money on Route 1 and complain that there just isn’t enough here, Warren has a simple warning: “If you don’t support locally owned business, if you don’t support diversity of retail, this is what you get,” she said.
Dan Reed is a senior architecture and English major. He can be reached at email@example.com.