Our Man in Arlington

April 18, 2017 1:24 PM0 comments

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Ah, the aroma of old paper and ink inside a fading hardbound book.

One of our community’s longest-standing haunts for bibliophiles is closing up shop. The Bookhouse for 43 years sold American history volumes in an unprepossessing home on North Emerson Street (across Wilson Blvd. from Safeway) tucked in a residential enclave.

Owner Natalie Hughes, 85, began the liquidation process in December, but — as I learned over the past two weeks — her love for book vending has meant she has trouble letting go.

I was there twice this month and, after contacting Hughes, was surprised to find her standing behind the counter this Saturday. Several neighbors were there, one calling the Bookhouse “a treasure” as they walked off with armfuls of volumes valued at $30 but leaving the store for just a dollar. Like many old-fashioned book lovers, they feel limited on purchases because they’re out of space at home. (That didn’t stop me from buying seven.)

The stained wood shelves that line each cramped room of the Bookhouse were for decades organized roughly by states — lots on Virginia. But those rules are now bent as Hughes prepares to sell the property and transfer the collection to son David. Natalie, who lives in Cherrydale, says, “I’m gone from the business” as her memory is weakening. (It seemed fine when I asked for local history volumes.)

David plans to reopen at a rural location and continue to sell her rarities for upwards of $1,000 online. (Though devoted to the print medium, the Bookhouse has not ignored the invasion by the Internet that has doomed many brick-and-mortar merchants.)

Before opening in the Ballston neighborhood in 1975, Natalie informed me that the Bookhouse dwelt for six years on Irving Street in Clarendon. She got her start in 1968 during a trip to Maine, where, on a whim, she relieved a bookseller of 3,000 volumes for $40.

Her second husband, Ed, was a customer when they met at Hughes’ Arlington storefront. He eventually became her partner and book buyer until his passing in 2016 at age 93. Natalie called her career behind the cash register “unbelievably pleasant” and “pure fun” as she and David prepared to close “for good” and limit visitors to “bulk buyers and people wanting to buy the entire inventory.”

The demise of the Bookhouse comes amid a string of merchant closings across Arlington. A quick search through the ARLNow newsblog showed that just in the past year:

• Casual Adventure on Washington Blvd. at Virginia Square is now in the process of closing after six decades (I remember when it was Sunny’s Surplus);

• Sehkraft Brewery in Clarendon (the brainchild of Devin Hicks, manager of the successful Westover beer garden), closed in January;

•Bradshaw’s Children’s Shoes at Lee Heights Shopping Center shut its doors in November;

• The Hard Times Café in Clarendon was shuttered in July;

• The Café Asia in Rosslyn ceased service in June;

• The Dominion Pet Center at Lee-Harrison gave up the ghost in May;

• The Mazda dealer at Ballston intersection closed last April;

And now the Iota Club & Cafe in Clarendon is threatened by a developer. (I was there the night Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze famously walked the crowd around the block, drawing neighbors’ complaints.)

Each closing is heartbreak for at least some Arlington customers — and for the brave entrepreneurs who kept them afloat.

***

Our schools have long benefited from the broader “campus” of the nation’s capital.

I recently came across a 1963 mimeographed sheet from my Yorktown High School biology teacher Clarence Seldomridge. It outlined field trips for a summer school science program.

A few impressive destinations: the Army Map Service, Bureau of Standards, David Taylor Model Basin (Bethesda), Georgetown Medical School, Fort Detrich (Frederick), Naval Research Lab, Agriculture Research Lab (Beltsville), Naval Ordnance Lab, Fort Belvoir, Walter Reed Army Hospital.

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