Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade had chutzpah.
As a precocious child, Cohen insisted upon attending her father’s Americans for Democratic Action meetings that were held in her living room; as a vocal individual, she eventually got herself kicked out of those meetings; and as a persistent personality, she secretly listened to subsequent meetings from the stairwell.
Then there’s Meade, who all alone at four years old, perhaps in pigtails and Mary Janes, marched her little body across R. Street to the Georgetown public library because she wanted to read. Keep in mind, some four-year-old kids aren’t even potty-trained.
Two girls drawn to prose and politics, eventually maturing into two women co-owning the independent bookstore (you guessed it!) Politics & Prose. In the space between 1984 and the present day, depicted in the timeline below, Politics & Prose became Washington, D.C.’s preeminent cultural hub. The history of this indie and of the individuals who cultivated it illustrate the interplay between person and community.
Cohen, who passed away in 2010, was heavily invested in her community. She served on a number of government committees that focused on community planning and housing. While passionate about her work, Cohen, a liberal, was not fond of Ronald Reagan. She resigned from her government position with his presidential election in 1981. Hungry for a new career, she determined to open her own bookstore.
Cohen submitted an ad for a bookstore manager to the Washington Post, and Meade responded to it. The manager of Foggy Bottom’s Moonstone Book Cellar and the previous owner of Potomac’s Bookstall, Meade was the perfect applicant. Soon, she became an equal partner with Cohen.
When brainstorming names for the indie, Cohen believed that the word, “politics,” fit well with the storefront’s Washington location. The concept reminded her of the Broadway number, “Politics and Poker,” which then inspired “Politics & Prose.”
But “poker” wasn’t an irrelevant term, as the economic climate of Chevy Chase, Maryland, (the town that borders Chevy Chase, Washington D.C., the neighborhood in which Politics & Prose resides, and shares a similar affluent aesthetic) and the publishing industry positioned the bookstore as a true gamble. A document entitled “The Town of Chevy Chase: Past and Present,” published in 1990 by the community’s History Committee, describes a series of store closings and location changes for well-established independent shops between 1982 and 1986. For example, Community Paint and Hardware opened its storefront in 1880, but closed in 1986 so that the town could build a high-rise in its place.
Additionally, chain bookstores were gaining traction in the business world. In 1977, Crown Books opened its first store in the Washington suburb, Lake Arbor. By mid-1982, Crown Books boasted 81 locations, many of them situated in Washington, D.C.
Yet, despite this ominousness, Politics & Prose not only survived but thrived as both an individual business and a societal phenomenon, essentially due to Cohen and Meade’s innovation. Speaking of these two women, Washington-based literary agent Raphael Sagalyn said, “One cannot exaggerate the influence of these two people on Washington. I would suggest that they have had as much influence on the community life of this city as any two people ever could.” But how?
Always emphasizing the collective, the dynamic duo differentiated Politics & Prose as a place where people could come together and talk about literature. In 1993, the store opened a coffeehouse, providing customers with a space in which to enjoy good food and good conversation. Cohen valued mealtime discussions even outside of the shop, frequently hosting dinner parties and seders at her home.
In 1989, the storefront moved across the street to 5015 Connecticut Avenue. Picture this: as evidence of the community’s involvement with the indie and the indie’s effect on the community, a police officer literally stopped traffic while neighborhood volunteers helped the employees carry boxes of inventory from the old store to the new one.
Cohen and Meade began a massive visiting author tradition at Politics & Prose, and the store now hosts author readings every night. These events created an intimate space for the discussion of prose and ideas. Furthermore, they reflected Cohen and Meade’s dedication to the individual. While both women booked established authors, the owners took risks on emerging writers whose work they found promising. These decisions afforded budding authors the opportunity to distinguish their verbal talents to a receptive audience.
In 2010, the two announced that they were selling Politics & Prose, a decision promptly largely by the worsening of Cohen’s malignancy. This news caused national alarm. In The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg hoped, or rather prayed, that the new owners would embody the same “hands-on, brains-on, hearts-on personal dedication” employed by Cohen and Meade.
This response reminds me of a quote from Escaped Into Print by Christopher Morley. He writes, “Literature and the great personalities who commit literature start sometimes very strange vibrations” (47). While Morley is speaking of authors, this phrase becomes even more resonant when applied to booksellers, especially Cohen and Meade. The intense reactions elicited by the owners’ decision to sell their store is demonstrative of the two women’s roles as cultural and political forces, vibrations or oscillations that emanated from the storefront of Politics & Prose and out into the national sphere.
On October 11, 2010, Carla Cohen passed. Politics & Prose hosted a memorial for their beloved founder. As testament of Cohen’s significance to Washington, the event was recorded and published on C-SPAN.
Motivated by the task of filling very large shoes, Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine, approved by Meade and Cohen before the latter’s passing, purchased Politics & Prose in June of 2011.
Using the technological advancements of the modern age, Graham and Muscatine have furthered their predecessors’ dual commitments to the community and the individual. In 2011, Politics & Prose acquired an Espresso Book Machine named Opus. (Even the machine becomes individualized.) For a fee, the print-on-demand mechanism allows customers the opportunity to self-publish their work.
Additionally, Opus serves a community function. In 2013, Politics & Prose began releasing District Lines, an annual anthology that publishes the work of local authors.
In Chevy Chase’s intellectual, high-brow neighborhood, Opus aims to democratize literature, affording the power of publication to all, or at least to those who can afford it. By doing so, Politics & Prose approaches Marion Dodd’s conception of the bookstore as “an arsenal of democracy” (Brannon 5). In fact, commensurate with Barbara Brannon’s connections between bookshops, print culture, and freedom of the press, the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association established the Carla Cohen Free Speech Award. This prize honors a children’s book that epitomizes the First Amendment.
Cohen’s legacy is also observed through the Carla Furstenberg Cohen Literary Prize. Founded in the aftermath of Cohen’s death, this award recognizes extraordinary pieces of fiction and nonfiction by authors writing their first or second book.
These literary prizes are perhaps the best explanations of Cohen and Meade’s success; even posthumously (in Cohen’s case) these women satisfy the ancient mythology of the bookseller. Laura Miller writes, “As part of their desire to spread a genteel culture, the regular bookseller of the early twentieth century took pride in improving people’s lives by introducing them to ‘good’ books” (57).
Likewise, Cohen and Meade were extremely particular about the kind of literature they stocked in their store and recommended to their customers. With spunk and spirit, Cohen often redirected her customers’ selections when they aimed to purchase a less-than-perfect text, saying, “Why would you want to read that; it’s dumb.” She would then rummage through shelves, grabbing a worthier title, and remark, “You would enjoy this a lot more—and it’s a far better book.”
In this way, Cohen and Meade branded themselves as makers of taste and as cultivators of politically conscious citizens. Granted, the location of Politics & Prose, peppered with professors and politicians, allowed them to fulfill a stereotypically snooty role. And this role does complicate the bookstore’s position as “an arsenal of democracy;” through her brash, yet personalized, suggestions, Cohen limited, or at the very least influenced, the populace’s freedom of choice in terms of their book selections.
But what saved Politics & Prose and perpetuated its impact on Washington, D.C., I think, is the very human quality—the very mortal quality—of Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade.
Booksmith. “Carla Cohen of Politics & Prose Bookstore, Washington DC.” YouTube. YouTube, 19 Apr. 2008. Web. 24 Feb. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQrFBm6Bk74>.
Brown, Emma. “Carla Cohen Dies; Co-founder of D.C. Bookstore Politics and Prose.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 11 Oct. 2010. Web. 24 Feb. 2016. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/11/AR2010101102811.html?sid=ST2010101102828>.
Hertzberg, Hendrik. “Politics & Prose & Perfection & (I Hope) Permanence.” The New Yorker. Conde Nast, 09 June 2010. Web. 24 Feb. 2016. <http://www.newyorker.com/news/hendrik-hertzberg/politics-prose-perfection-i-hope-permanence>.
“In Memorium – Carla F. Cohen (1936-2010).” Politics and Prose. N.p., 2010. Web. 24 Feb. 2016. <http://www.politics-prose.com/carla>.
“Memorial for Carla Cohen.” C-SPAN.org. C-SPAN, 21 Nov. 2010. Web. 24 Feb. 2016. <http://www.c-span.org/video/?296926-1%2Fmemorial-carla-cohen>.
“New Owners.” Politics and Prose. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2016. <http://www.politics-prose.com/new-owners>.
Politics & Prose Bookstore. N.p., 2016. Web. 24 Feb. 2016. <http://www.politics-prose.com/>.
Righthand, Jess. “Print Your Own Book at Politics & Prose.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 15 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 Feb. 2016. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/print-your-own-book-at-politics-and-prose/2011/12/12/gIQAwwXjwO_story.html>.
Torbati, Yeganeh June. “Bookstore in Capital Seeks Its Next Chapter.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 22 June 2010. Web. 24 Feb. 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/23/us/23prose.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1>.
“The Town of Chevy Chase: Past & Present.” The Town of Chevy Chase. N.p., 1990. Web. 24 Feb. 2016. <http://www.townofchevychase.org/184/The-Town-of-Chevy-Chase-Past-Present>.
Wilwol, John. “What I’ve Learned: Politics & Prose’s Barbara Meade | Washingtonian.” Washingtonian. Washington Media Inc, 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 24 Feb. 2016. <http://www.washingtonian.com/2013/03/28/what-ive-learned-politics-and-proses-barbara-meade/>.
Politics & Prose. “Politics & Prose 30th Anniversary Video.” YouTube. YouTube, 18 Sept. 2014. Web. 24 Feb. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPhOwiE_vAg>.
Image in Timeline
Politics and Prose Logo <https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/a/a7/Politics_and_Prose.jpg>
Politics & Prose Bookstore <https://www.google.com/maps/place/Politics+%26+Prose+Bookstorefirstname.lastname@example.org,-77.0718584,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m2!3m1!1s0x89b7c9b992f1a9f7:0xb82a9184a0d413af>
Barbara and Carla in Black and White <http://www.politics-prose.com/sites/politics-prose.com/files/barbaracarla.jpg>
Politics and Prose <http://www.politics-prose.com/sites/politics-prose.com/files/30.jpg>
Barbara and Carla in Color <http://15128-presscdn-0-60.pagely.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/IMG_1537_1.jpg.optimal.jpg>
Opus The Espresso Book Machine <https://c1.staticflickr.com/7/6041/6256317164_b132e2154c_b.jpg>
Brannon, Barbara A. The Bookshop as “An Arsenal of Democracy”: Marion Dodd and the Hampshire Bookshop during World War II. New York: Bibliographical Society of America, 1998. Print.
Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2006. Print.
Morley, Christopher. Ex Libris Carissimis. New York: A.S. Barnes, 1961. Print.