Of course, DC has a free punk rock bookstore

As media empires disappear, Hunter Bennett is quite modest: a box of used books as a gift and a monthly newsletter. But residents of Chevy Chase DC with a fondness for punk rock and detective stories will find the Free open-air Nevada Avenue bookstore to be a sort of DIY oasis. Bennett, lawyer and musician (who plays in the group dotted), started the project at the age of 50 and found that he would never reread most of the books on his shelves. So he decided to give some. Offers are not heavily organized: on a recent afternoon the collection included books both on the brand (a memory of Viv Albertine slits) and not (Hillbilly elegy). The box also contains copies of Bennett’s newsletter, which features Q&A with DC music luminaries such as Michael hampton (the faith, To kiss), Seth Lorinczi (Circus lupus, Vile cherubim), and Kim thompson (Delta 72, Cupid Car Club). Number had a fascinating conversation with Jefferson Airplane’s Jacques Casady and Jorma Kaukonen, who both grew up in Chevy Chase DC and went to Wilson High School. We recently spoke to Bennett about how the project came about and where it was headed.

You are not from DC. How did you get into the music scene, which can be difficult for people from outside?

I first moved here in 1988. I chose the college I attended [George Washington University] because I liked punk rock that came from Washington, DC. When I moved here in August 1988, I imagined that in September I would be playing in a band with, like, Ian MacKaye and all the people whose records I loved. But it took a lot longer for me to get in with the people I had dreamed of playing with. John Stabb, who was the singer in Government problem– after they split up he created this band called Weatherhead, and they couldn’t keep a stable bass player. I responded to an ad [for a bass player]. I called at random and he spoke to me for about an hour and a half. This is exactly how John was. I auditioned and I guess I played well enough to get the job.

By day you are a lawyer in a well-known law firm. How does this world fit in with being a punk rock dude?

Well I think I think it goes together pretty well. Being a lawyer kind of funds my most creative endeavors. I have complete freedom to publish a free newsletter each month with printing costs, time and labor.

What do your fellow lawyers think about your extracurricular activities?

I don’t know how many know it, but I think those who think it’s pretty cool. Some of them wrote great things for the newsletter which is really cool of them. In my firm – and I think most law firms do – people like really cool stuff. Because practicing law is exhausting and stressful somehow, you need to have some hobbies on the side to stay sane.

So how did you create this tiny media empire that you now own?

I turned 50 last August and had the revelation that I had all these books that I will never read again until I die. It seemed to me that I should try to pass them on to people who might also appreciate them. It all started with me pulling out a table every two months – putting “free books” and people coming. It was a way to meet people. There are a lot of really interesting people in this neighborhood. One guy said, “I’m in the punk rock books; I’m kind of a cult punk rock figure. I’m like, “Oh yeah? Who are you? ”It was Mark Jickling from Half japanese, who lives a few blocks down the street. So that was cool.

And then when Covid arrived, I thought it made sense to make it more official. I bought one of these little pre-made bookcases. I’m not such a handyman that I could install it myself, so I bribed a few friends with coffee and donuts and they helped me install it.

Who did you have in mind as an audience for this thing?

Two groups of people. This neighborhood is somehow seen as hopelessly suburban and not cool by younger people. They always feel like a little bit of them is dying when they have to move here from, you know, Mount Pleasant or Columbia Heights or somewhere down downtown. [Laughs] I want to give them hope that they don’t move to an incredibly lame place. Honestly, Chevy Chase DC’s contribution to Washington, DC culture is immeasurable.

It’s fun to live around the corner from the Chevy Chase Community Center, where in the 80s there were these amazing shows by, like, Rites of Spring, which was truly one of the biggest bands in the world. There’s this kind of secret story that most of the people around you don’t even know about.

Yes. I’m trying to interview [Rites of Spring and Fugazi drummer] Brendan Canty, since he grew up here. I mean, someone should take a Chevy Chase DC walking tour.

So that’s the first part of my audience: I want people to realize how really cool this neighborhood is. And the other group is people my kid’s age – to tell them that there were young people doing great things in this neighborhood 20 or 30 years ago, and that they could do the same thing. Not necessarily punk rock, but there are all kinds of cool artistic things they could do.

And then there is the newsletter, which obviously requires a lot more work.

I often wonder if I’m blowing this up in the universe and I’m the only person reading it. [Laughs] I always wanted to have a fanzine when I was a teenager and in my twenties, but I was really disorganized. The first issue of the newsletter was just a list of the books I published, but then I thought to myself that I need to give people more content than that. It seemed like a good excuse to reach out to some old-time DC rocker punks whose music I loved and ask them a bunch of questions.

How do you choose who to interview?

People tend to question the same people over and over again. Ian MacKaye is a fascinating interview, and I’ll read or listen to every interview he does, but I try to reach people who have been interviewed less, or in some cases not at all.

Where are you going to get this from here?

I would like to have a one year birthday party in my backyard [this fall], have groups play and have people read. I wish it looked like something more than just a box sticking out of the ground. I wish it looked like a real bookstore.

What is your relationship with the Little Free Library system?

It looks like a little free library. To be a civil servant Small free library and appear on their card, you have to agree to all kinds of onerous terms where if they decide they don’t like your little free library and what it stands for – or if you submit the good reputation of the small free libraries – they can somehow come after you. I like to think that they would never think that about my little free library, but rather than take the risk, I chose not to sign up.

Who could have a problem with detective stories and punk rock?

Yeah, seriously.

Political and cultural editor

Originally from DC, Rob Brunner returned to the city in 2017 to join Washingtonian. Previously he was editor and writer at Fast business and other publications. He also wrote for the New York Times Magazine, new York, and Rolling stone, among others. He lives with his family in Chevy Chase DC.

About Joan J. Hernandez

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