On most weekday afternoons, Lisette Howe can be found outside Read Street Books and Coffee congregating with the usual huddle of Mount Vernon residents and chatting up random passersby. "Oh, it's been a dream job," Howe says of her position as manager and sole employee of the bookstore.
Back in 2001, Howe lived in Takoma Park, where she grew up, and was set to work at the retail art shop of the Phillips Collection in Dupont Circle. But after the attacks on 9/11, and as a hiring freeze spread through D.C., the museum called and told her that they had to let her go before she even started.
During this period of uncertainty in her life, Howe got in touch with Christina Bittner, a good friend in Baltimore. Bittner, a resident of Brooklyn Park, had always wanted to own a shop that sold books and coffee and was in the process of finding a property. So when Howe mentioned that she no longer had the position at the Phillips, Bittner asked her if she would be the bookshop's manager.
Howe moved into the apartment above 229 W. Read in January of the following year. "The place was in shambles," she recalls. What used to be Read Street Piercing had long been abandoned when Bittner purchased it. The entire space needed to be cleared out and repurposed.
They opened Read Street Books and Coffee in March 2006. It was, as it stands today, a place where people could drop off old books and purchase what others had brought in for bargain prices. Howe herself loves going on book hunts. "I never pass a yard sale without picking up a few books for the store," she says. When Read Street Tattoos moved from next door, Bittner acquired the property and turned it into a sitting room that could house even more books.
Howe has taken up several odd jobs in her time, anything from retail to banking, and even a one-time stint at C&P Telephone. But managing Read Street Books is the first job that has also served as a creative inspiration. "I'm not an office person," Howe admits. "I'm a creative person, and this job gives me an outlet."
In fact, Howe is also a painter. A couple of her pieces hang on the wall of the store's annex, one a copy of a Renoir, her favorite artist, and the other a portrait of a friend named Marie. Watercolor is her favorite medium. She remembers her excitement when her third grade class graduated from crayons and moved up to watercolor. "It's a medium that takes a lot of patience," Howe says. But she loves the interplay between the paint and the water and has found that, for her, "the best pictures are always accidents."
When she was painting Marie, for instance, "it wasn't turning out right." Just as she was ready to give up, she caught Marie in a private moment, holding her chin with the back of her hand, smiling as she recalled a fond memory. "The light was capturing her really well," Howe says. "So I told her, 'Marie, stay there, and don't you move.'" And that is the image that hangs in the store today.
She has shown her pieces at Read Street Books a number of times, but Howe knows that "you don't really sell a whole lot unless you show at a gallery." So she got the idea to make copies of her originals and put them in 8-by-10 and 11-by-14-inch greeting cards. That way, they're easy to make and easy to sell in the store. And though they're not originals, the cards still have the artist's personal touch.
Howe's parents are her greatest inspirations. Her father was a sergeant who fought at the Battle of the Bulge, and her mother was from a Belgian family that was part of an underground network that sheltered Jews.
She gets her artistic drive from her mother, who came to America speaking very little English, raised nine children, and somehow earned a bachelor's in fine arts from University of Maryland, College Park. Howe's favorite childhood memory is sitting at the dinner table, doing homework while her mother painted on a cheap aluminum easel, on a canvas that she learned to stretch herself.
It took a while for Howe to accept herself as an artist. She went to nursing school for a year and a half only to realize that she had a weak stomach on her class' first trip to the operating room. "I felt like such an unsuccessful adult," she says. "Artists are square pegs in a round world." Instead, she followed her mother's footsteps. She took night classes at Montgomery College while raising her two daughters and eventually earned her associate's in fine arts.
At 62, which Howe declares is "a great time of life," she wants to inspire young artists as her mom inspired her. Howe senses the onset of an artistic resurgence on Read. She and Bittner have talked for years about trying to bring back the Read Street festivals of old, but neither has the time or money to follow through with it. So they decided to start small.
During this year's Artscape, they hosted the first Art Walk on Read, which allowed artists who couldn't afford booths at the actual event to showcase their work for free. Craftsmakers, jewelers, painters, and even musicians brought Read Street to life that weekend.
The duo was so thrilled with the turnout that they have now made Art Walk a weekly affair. With the permission of neighboring businesses, artists and musicians of all kinds can display or sell their work along the 200 block of West Read Street on Sundays from noon to 6:00 p.m.
"It's not about ambition, it's about love" is Howe's advice to aspiring artists. "I know I'm not a great artist, but I'm not trying to make a career out of it. I do my art out of love."