I have always been a sucker for alliteration, especially when it’s tactful. That being said, I find the name of Washington, D.C.’s preeminent independent bookstore, Politics & Prose, particularly pleasant to pronounce. But this name serves a much more significant function than aural whimsy. The words “politics and prose” indicate the way in which this bookstore is both a product and a perpetuation of its place within the nation’s capital.
Situated at 5015 Connecticut Avenue NW in the affluent neighborhood of Chevy Chase, which is located within the greater Northwest Washington area, Politics & Prose shares an environment with political landmarks like the White House, cultural attractions like the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, and educational institutions like American University. These physical structures embody Washington, D.C.’s historical and national significance. The locations combine to create, what scholar Tim Cresswell describes as, a “[site] of history and identity” (5). Piggy-backing off of that idea, political geographer John Agnew notes that “places… are material things,” comprised of tangible objects and buildings (Cresswell 7). Applying these theories to the capital, D.C.’s stores, monuments, museums, and government offices become representations of the evolution of the United States as a country, in addition to symbols of both the definition and conception of the word, “American.”
When analyzing David Harvey’s theory regarding the implications of place, Cresswell writes that “places just don’t exist;” rather, “they are always and continually being socially constructed by powerful institutional forces in society” (57). Washington, D.C.’s landscape informs Politics & Prose, as the store’s name is an obvious nod to the city’s connection with the federal government. However, despite the common misconception, the bookstore’s content is not limited to politically-oriented texts and commodities. Rather, the name “Politics & Prose” characterizes the politically-charged atmosphere of the place to which the indie belongs.
The surrounding neighborhoods (depicted in the map of Washington, D.C. 20008) have a total population of 27,590 people. These residents are well-educated; 87.5% have a Bachelor’s degree or higher, and 57.4% have a graduate or professional degree. In this way, the city’s educational institutions help influence the creation of an intellectual, literate place. The majority of the population is white. The median household income for this area is $100,953, and only 3.2% of the population is unemployed.
A variety of small businesses, local restaurants, and chain stores stand alongside Politics & Prose on a commercial strip of Connecticut Avenue NW. Some shops include a tailor, a dry cleaners, a CVS Pharmacy, and a takeout subs and pizza joint called Besta Pizza—an arguable declaration, but I’ll get to that shortly.
Many of the restaurants in this area, such as Little Red Fox, Buck’s Fishing and Camping, and Jake’s American Grille, serve an array of American-style dishes. This culinary aesthetic seems fitting, given that these eateries are located in Washington, D.C. and cater to Americans.
In fact, when brainstorming names for a niche bookstore in the nation’s capital back in 1984, then owner Carla Cohen sought a “Washington-sounding name that wasn’t pretentious;” a name of the people, by the people, and for the people… who read (“The Story of Politics & Prose”). Cohen’s concept echoes scholar Laura J. Miller’s argument that independent bookstores “position themselves as the true representatives of the populace” (115). In light of this rather republican idea, the name “Politics & Prose” situates the bookstore as a place for U.S. citizens, while the actual storefront grounds the business as a place atop American soil.
Now getting back to pizza. As a Long Island native, I will always maintain that the best pizza comes from New York. However, perhaps the coolest part of this neighborhood, aside from Politics & Prose, is Comet Ping Pong. Located a few storefronts down from the bookstore, this innovative pizza place features multiple ping pong tables that customers can play with while they eat and hangout.
The hip, charming combination of food and fun realizes Yi-Fu Tuan’s conception of place as a “pause in movement” that allows for a “location” to become a meaningful space (Cresswell 8). Amid the hustle and bustle of urban life, especially in a city as fast, dynamic, and intense as the nation’s capital, Politics & Prose, as well as its surrounding businesses and cultural landmarks, provide people with respite from a hectic reality. Shoppers at Politics & Prose can grab a cup of coffee at the café, sit down in a comfy chair, and enjoy a good book. Their movement literally stops, transforming an arbitrary space into a place for relaxation. Even President Barack Obama indulges in this type of break every now and then, visiting Politics and Prose on Small Business Saturday.
“20008 Zip Code Detailed Profile.” City-Data. Advameg, Inc., n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2016. <http://www.city-data.com/zips/20008.html>.
Maps and Images
Google Maps: Politics & Prose, Comet Ping Pong, Washington D.C., 20008, 5073 Connecticut Avenue NW, Smithsonian National Zoological Park
“Google Maps.” Google Maps. Google, n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2016. <http://maps.google.com/>.
Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004.
Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
“The Story of Politics & Prose.” Politics and Prose. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Feb. 2016. <http://www.politics-prose.com/our-history>.