- The Washington Times - Monday, January 7, 2008

Education comes in many forms at Busboys and Poets, a District-based bookstore-restaurant-theater at 14th and V streets Northwest, which has opened a second campuslike home in Shirlington and has another planned for this spring in the new City Vista area downtown.

Exposure to poetry, literature, film, drama (mainly performance art) and politics is almost a daily constant, available free or for a small charge on site, while other events are held in conjunction with local theaters and libraries.

Spontaneous conversations among customers — some drawn by free Wi-Fi — can turn into the equivalent of seminars.

The bookstore at each location is run by a nonprofit group called Teaching for Change, specializing in poetry, political literature and so-called minority issues. Children’s books are far from run-of-the-mill. “A Kid’s View of Shelter Living” is one of the titles on a shelf in Shirlington.

Following a recent evening talk in the public library across the street from the Shirlington cafe, Frances Moore Lappe, author of the long-ago best-seller “Diet for a Small Planet,” signed copies of her latest book near the bar.

An open-mike session took place later in the Paul Robeson Room, located behind a curtain in the back, preceded by a documentary film playing on one wall.

The shirts on two diners sitting together read “George Mason School of Law” and “National Guard,” typifying the area’s demographic spread.

Pamela Pinnock, the marketing manager who coordinates Busboys’ programs, takes pride in the variety and value of panel and lecture topics available, such as a discussion at V Street on raising awareness about violence done to women of color and another called “Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings and Everything in Between.”

The rooms normally reserved for readings and poetry slams are equipped with a small stage and lighting, making it possible to rent them out to private groups, even wedding parties.

A reception for an exhibit of photographs taken by blind teens called “Seeing Beyond Sight” took place in the same space where a week later four holiday parties were held in succession on one day, sponsored by both government and nonprofit offices.

Comparing a polymorphous cafe with an institution of higher learning isn’t entirely out of line, given the background and outlook of enterprising founder-owner Andy Shallal, 52, who has followed an unusual educational path of his own.

His quest for knowledge in many forms became a formula resisting simple categorization, but in just two years, it has made the original 7,000-square-foot cafe something of a neighborhood institution.

An Iraqi-American who came to the Washington area from Baghdad with his family when he was 11, he was thrust into a local school system — an Arab without English whose father was a high-ranking diplomat. He later dropped out of pre-med studies at Howard University.

“It just wasn’t my thing. A big part of it also was rebellion — trying to figure things out on my own,” he says.

His dream when he was growing up was to be part of a big city. New York was his ideal, but he put down roots here — fathering four children who are nearly all grown, starting a small bookstore and owning several restaurant operations before starting Busboys in 2005.

He named it after renowned black poet Langston Hughes, who was a poetry-writing busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel in the early 1920s.

The idea for an all-purpose cafe sprang from Mr. Shallal’s concern for social justice and interest in propagating civility, especially the need to bring races and religions together for a greater understanding of likeness and difference.

“A lot of people come here who aren’t political, and that is OK as long as they are comfortable with what we are doing,” he notes.

“This is one of the few places you can come in the midafternoon and find a buzz,” Ms. Pinnock says. “It’s got a welcoming spirit.”

Kellie Crawford, owner of 14th Street’s On Lokation retail store, agrees, cheerfully complaining at 3 p.m. on a December Thursday about how she spends “too much time here.”

Mr. Shallal calls his enterprise “a microcosm of what the city is and can be. I don’t think people want segregation.” At the same time, he says, most businesspeople “are afraid of politics. Afraid because they feel they are going to cut out half the earth in terms of clientele.”

His existence, he says, “is centered around my politics and is an extension of my being. But if you put it into a formula simply to make money, it isn’t going to work.”

The cafe’s mix of people, programs and freshly prepared food offered at reasonable prices from early morning until after midnight creates a community center of sorts, with a formula so successful that Mr. Shallal gets at least one serious offer a week — usually from developers — asking him to expand yet again.

A fourth Busboys is planned for Hyattsville in 2009, and after that, possibly in the old Newseum building in Rosslyn and even in Harlem in Manhattan

He is drawn especially to areas where there is a tradition of artistic expression reflective of the locale’s history.

“Shirlington, in Arlington, had a large African-American community near Four Mile Run, where a lot is being gentrified but much has hung onto tradition,” he says. “Arlington is advanced socially and artistically, being one of few counties in the country that hires a folklorist.”

Recognizing that Shirlington feels “like a spot in the middle of nowhere, where people feel a kind of disconnect,” he says he hopes the cafe “will become some connective tissue.”

To that end, the cafe plans to invite the folklorist to tell stories about what it was like living there two or four decades ago.

Mr. Shallal also is active in a group called Local First that has banded together “to make the city more friendly to local business and less friendly to the big boxes. We try to educate, promote and work not only with local government, but also to create opportunities for more small business and level the playing field. The big boxes get subsidies to come into an area. We feel in the long run it isn’t as healthy for a community. … Local is a very sexy term, and I think in that sense we have a good issue to sell.”

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