In the late 1800’s to early 1900’s the residents of Washington, D.C. began branching out of the city for more spacious land to build houses and move their families to, so as to get out of the constant hustle and bustle of city life for a more relaxed, slower paced way of living without giving up their careers in the city. The growing popularity of the street car for those who had enough money to afford one made such endeavors possible, as well as the development of the trolley and extension of Connecticut Avenue to allow residents of Chevy Chase a straight shot right into the city. By 1892 the trolley connecting the city to Chevy Chase had been built and by 1902 forty-nine homes had been built in the neighborhood. In the years following, those of the professional middle class were looking for new ways of living other than the cramped conditions of the city; they discovered the beauty of single family homes with room for a yard and garage. As they branched out from the city into the suburbs businesses followed with them.
It was in this growing suburb that Carla Cohen decided to start up an independent bookstore after she had spent three years unemployed after previously working for the Carter administration in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (The Washington Post).
Cohen was born in Baltimore in April of 1936 (maiden name Carla Furstenberg) and was the oldest of six children. She had grown up with a love of books and had been reading since she was a child. She graduated from Ohio’s Antioch College in 1958 and earned her master’s degree in city planning from the University of Pennsylvania. She married David Cohen and had two children.
Cohen partnered up with Barbara Meade, who had owned a bookstore before, and together they opened Politics and Prose in the fall of 1984. When they first opened the store it was only Cohen and Meade and one other part time employee, but as the store grew more employees were hired, more books were provided, and before too long the store was relocated across the street to a larger building.
During the summer of 1989 Cohen and Meade had a small group of neighbors help them move all the store’s merchandise (about 15,000 books) across the street to the new location at 5015 Connecticut Avenue.
In the year 1999 the nearby children’s bookstore, Cheshire Cat, merged with Politics and Prose, which greatly expanded the children’s section of the bookstore.
As bookstore owners, Cohen and Meade “each tried to read as many as five books a week”. They wanted to be able to make recommendations to their customers on what books were worth reading and what books “contributed absolutely nothing to our culture, to the publishing world, and are not that enjoyable to read” Meade told The Washington Post. Cohen and Meade developed a loyal clientele who trusted in their abilities to recommend books that were published to be culturally and intellectually nourishing and not simply looking to make high profits. Both owners took on “the responsibility of the bookseller to act as an intellectual advisor included discouraging people from reading salacious material. But most important, the bookseller was to use his personal familiarity and influence with his customers to encourage them to read, and so learn to prefer, the stuff deemed most nourishing. The bookseller would thus use his knowledge and authority to help mold the tastes of his clientele in a way that was both socially and personally beneficial” (Miller 58). This is a big reason the bookstore has become one of the best literature and cultural hubs of Washington, D.C.
In 2009 Carla Cohen was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer found in the bile ducts and on October 11, 2010 she passed away. A year after Cohen passed away Meade and Cohen’s husband decided to sell the bookstore; Meade said “…it would be too lonely to run a business by myself”. They received about 50 offers from people wanting to buy the bookstore, but in the end they chose a married couple, Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine.
At first Graham was only interested in purchasing the bookstore, but Meade insisted the store cannot be under only male ownership since it had been under female ownership for the past 27 years (Washingtonian). Graham began bringing his wife along to the meetings with Meade and Cohen’s husband and it didn’t take long for her to become interested in owning half the bookstore as well.
Graham and Muscatine were unsure about purchasing a bookstore at first because of the decline in customers shopping in bookstores and the rise of online and electronic book sales. As most people know “economic pressures have always made bookselling a precarious profession…many of those who stay in it…would be richer and less harassed in some other occupation” (Anderson 25), but the couple was not concerned with making high profits but rather determined to keep Cohen and Meade’s legacy alive and thriving. They wanted to continue providing the community with a diverse stock of intellectually stimulating books, and not commercial titles that only look to make money off of customers. Graham and Muscatine had a lot of assistance through the store’s “loyal and large customer base, expert staff, extensive links to other Washington community organizations, and widely respected name”.
Politics and Prose has hosted many highly influential and respectable speakers, authors, and other guests such as J.K. Rowling in 1999 signing 1,200 books in just two hours, Bill Clinton signing copies of his book Back to Work in December of 2011, and Barack Obama shopping with his family in December of 2013 and November or 2014 in honor of “Small Business Saturday”.
Politics and Prose has been a bookstore known to stock books that are intellectually and culturally stimulating, rather than popular commercial books looking to sell high quantities at cheap prices for high profits. Cohen and Meade had set out to create a business in which they could offer books that would contribute to the knowledge and cultural diversity of the residents in Chevy Chase and the city of Washington, D.C.
They wanted to create relationships with their customers in which their customers could come to them for advice on what and what not to read. Both Cohen and Meade saw how chain bookstores were hiring and staffing employees with limited knowledge in the books they were selling: “bookstore patrons indicate that readers today have extremely limited expectations for bookstore employees’ knowledge about books, much less the world of ideas in general. When asked what makes for a good salesperson at a bookstore, the majority of respondents cited friendliness or the simple ability to direct customers to the right location to find a title” (Miller 63). This was the exact opposite type of relationship Cohen and Meade had with their loyal customers; instead both owners attempted to read and stay up to date on as much literature as they could to help inform their customers and offer advice on which books were most fitting.
In the selling of Politics and Prose, Cohen and Meade had both agreed they wanted to find new owners who would continue this strong relationship with the store’s loyal customers, which is why they chose Graham and Muscatine. The new owners must be holding up their end of the deal pretty well since Politics and Prose Bookstore continues to be the highly respected place for many authors and publishers to sell intellectually and culturally stimulating reading material to the diverse community of Chevy Chase and the city Washington, D.C.
Fisher, Marc. “Chevy Chase, 1916: For Everyman, A New Lot in Life.” The Washington Post. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/2000/chevychase0215.htm>
Chevy Chase Neighborhood Association. “History.” <http://www.chevychaseneighborhood.org/history.html>
Brown, Emma. “Carla Cohen Dies; Co-founder of D.C. Bookstore Politics and Prose.” The Washington Post.<http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/11/AR2010101102811_2.html?tid=a_inl&sid=ST2010101102828>
“The Story of Politics and Prose.” Politics and Prose Bookstore website. <http://www.politics-prose.com/our-history>
Parker, Ashley. “Carla Cohen, Owner of Washington Bookstore, Dies at 74.” The New York Times. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/12/books/12cohen.html>
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Rosenwald, Michael S. “Barbara Meade Retires from Politics and Prose, Reflects on a Life in Book.” The Washington Post. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/barbara-meade-retires-from-politics-and-prose-reflects-on-a-life-in-books/2013/01/22/e7579214-61e8-11e2-b05a-605528f6b712_story.html>
Wilwol, John. “What I’ve Learned: Politics and Prose’s Barbara Meade.” Washingtonian. <http://www.washingtonian.com/2013/03/28/what-ive-learned-politics-and-proses-barbara-meade/>
“Children’s Department.” Politics and Prose Bookstore Website. <http://www.politics-prose.com/anniversary/childrens>
“Bill Clinton – Back to Work”. Politics and Prose Bookstore Website. <http://www.politics-prose.com/event/book/bill-clinton-back-to-work>
Roth, Zachary. “Obama Celebrates Small Business Saturday at D.C. Bookstore.” MSNBC. <http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/obamas-small-business-saturday>
Berger, Daniel. “Here are the Books Obama Bought at Politics and Prose.” MSNBC. <http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/obama-buys-books-politics-prose>
Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade. Politics and Prose Bookstore website.
Bookstore at 5015 Connecticut Avenue. “Why We Bought Politics and Prose.” The Washington Post.<https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-we-bought-politics-and-prose/2011/04/01/AFDjweJC_story.html>
Lissa Muscatine and Bradley Graham. Politics and Prose Bookstore website. <http://www.politics-prose.com/our-history>
J.K. Rowling at Politics and Prose. The Washington Post. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/gallery/2010/06/09/GA2010060904320.html>
President Obama at Politics and Prose. Bloomberg. <http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2014-11-30/potus-reading-list-the-books-obama-bought-at-politics-prose>
Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Anderson, Charles B. Bookselling in America and the World: Some Observations & Recollections in Celebration of the 75th Anniversary of the American Booksellers Association. New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book, 1975. Print.