Carla Cohen had a terrible poker face.
When establishing the independent bookstore Politics & Prose, Cohen claimed that she did not want to create an indie driven by political undertones. Instead, she simply desired a bookstore with a name reflective of the surrounding Washington, D.C. area, and to her the word “politics” achieved the connotation she was looking for. It reminded her of the Broadway tune, “Politics and Poker,” which ultimately inspired “Politics & Prose.”
Take a look inside Politics & Prose!
Cohen, along with her co-owner Barbara Meade, denied the bookstore’s supposed political agenda until the day that the former died. And the store’s current owners, Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine, proudly advertise the shop’s wide cooking, travel, and fiction selections on their website in an effort, it seems, to prove that they are interested in more than just politics. But we’re calling this bluff.
Politics are clearly at play within Politics & Prose. While this factor isn’t necessarily good nor bad, it does have consequences on the power dynamics regarding the bookstore’s personas, local community, and definition of literature.
Outside of a bookstore, politics is often defined as being the “activities or policies associated with government,” or else as “actions concerned with the acquisition or exercise of power, status, or authority” (“Politics” def. 1 & 2). But language has always been linked to politics, ever since Plato warned the ancient Greeks about the effects of rhetoric on the functioning of the polis. We see this idea in today’s presidential elections, noting the way that Donald Trump’s bold statements impact his campaign. But let’s take a step back from all of these primaries and debates, because, honestly, everyone needs a break from that circus. Instead, let’s explore the ways in which politics as a struggle for power exists at Politics & Prose.
Consider, for instance, physical placement. The bookstore’s location in the nation’s capital literally places Politics & Prose in the perfect position to serve a civic function: a catalyst for the kind of open discussion necessary for the success of a democracy. Early 20th-century bookstore owner Marion Dodd refers to the bookstore as an “arsenal of democracy,” and Cohen did use her bookstore as a sort of democratic haven (Brannon). Before opening the store, Cohen worked for presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, who ended up losing the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan. We actually owe the existence of Politics & Prose to this loss. Bouncing back from a disappointing election, Cohen decided to open her own independent bookstore right in the heart of the most politically influential area of the country. Did Cohen want to recover her party’s previous power through her indie? While we can only speculate, we also cannot ignore the implications of the store’s location.
For instance, Cohen and Meade specifically aimed to position their bookstore as a meeting place where people could share their ideas about serious books and serious issues. And what better place to put that arsenal, that center for popular power and expression, than inside the nexus of American government? But Politics & Prose is a little more approachable than an armory. The cozy armchairs invite customers to take a seat and engage in conversation about climate change, while the refurbished coffee house—which debuted in 1993—allows people the chance to chat about foreign policy over a caramel macchiato and pie fries.
At Politics & Prose, literature becomes an opportunity for robust discussion. As scholar Tim Cresswell says, “places just don’t exist;” rather, “they are always and continually being socially constructed by powerful institutional forces in society” (57). A bookstore is not simply built in a location and left to operate without any influences from the surrounding society. Cohen used to say, “We have built the community and the community has built us.” Cresswell would agree that without the society surrounding it,the bookstore’s edifice would hold little to no meaning. In this way, the U.S. government shapes the particular dynamic present within Politics & Prose.
That dynamic manifests itself in the bookstore’s massive author event tradition. Incredibly, Politics & Prose hosts over 400 events per year, many of which can be found here. These book readings and Q&A sessions feature local, national, and global authors, sparking dialogues between customers and writers. All you would need to do is skim the titles of many of the videos to know that politics rests at the heart of these events.
Still, Cohen would probably argue otherwise. When conservative journalist Matthew Drudge asked to hold an event at the bookstore, Cohen rejected his request and then claimed that her decision was not influenced by political loyalties. Instead she told The Washington Post, “It’s not a question of left or right, conservative or liberal. It’s a question of sleaze versus careful, thoughtful reporting.” From the outside, it’s not difficult to be skeptical of this statement.
New owners, Lissa Muscatine and Bradley Graham, demonstrate a greater awareness of the political implications and consequences surrounding the store’s events. Since assuming ownership, the two are making a public effot to invite more conservative writers to the bookstore. While they may appear to be backpedaling, others see their initiatives in ownership as moving forward. In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Muscatine said that she and Graham “care about the role of discourse in a democracy. The quality of that discourse is eroding seriously at this point. [Politics & Prose] could and should be a forum for civic and civil discourse.”
Discourse in a democracy is an exercise of power, and those who facilitate or control that discourse are powerful people. Skilled linguists with major connections, the owners of Politics & Prose are qualified to fulfill that role.
Muscatine served as Hillary Clinton’s chief speechwriter during the latter’s time as First Lady and Secretary of State. The two became close colleagues, and Muscatine recently helped Clinton edit her memoir, Hard Choices. An inside glimpse at the relationship between these two women was provided in a 2014 style article published in The Washington Post, where Graham worked as an editor, reporter, and correspondent since 1978. The article notes that Muscatine and Clinton “spent the past 20 years in the meticulous, maddening pursuit of finding exactly the right words for exactly the right moment.”
Keeping this quote in mind, let’s return to that “Politics and Poker” song. The number comes from the Broadway play, Fiorello!, which is about New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s struggle with the Tammany Hall political machine. “Politics and Poker” describes the Tammany Hall machine hand-selecting a Congressional candidate whom they know will fail to win an election, and is sung while the members play a game of poker. The lyrics read “And watch while he learns that in/ Poker and politics/ Brother, you’ve gotta have/ That slippery hap-hazardous commodity/ You’ve gotta have the cards!” And the booksellers at Politics & Prose are not only playing the right cards—the right words—but also dealing the hand.
By selecting the kinds of authors allowed to visit the store, Cohen, Meade, Graham, and Muscatine control the construction of discourse. For better or for worse, the conversations within the bookstore are inherently censored.
This conversation isn’t just oral, however; it’s written and physical too. Perhaps the most significant contributor to this discussion is books. And no, we aren’t talking about bookies—book-shaped cookies, for those of you not up to date in your bookstore café lingo.
In Politics & Prose you won’t find a section designated to politics. That, of course, would be too easy. Instead, each genre’s space in the bookstore is infiltrated by politics in some form. Whether it is the LGBTQ shelf in the arts section or the trifecta of the International Studies, History, and Religion in the front of the store, political undertones follow you wherever you go on the main floor.
In the spirit of their Indie Celebration that happened this past Saturday, Politics & Prose heavily advertised the special books that they’d have available for sale. Among these were an adult coloring book, a collection of essays entitled The Care and Feeding of an Independent Bookstore (wink wink, nudge nudge) and a book about hamburgers signed by Anthony Bourdain. And we can’t forget the children’s book selection featuring a book-making class and Curious George.
Following Cohen and Meade’s attention to good literature, Muscatine and Graham claim, “We are selective about the books that we order, offering what is important to our customers and what is important to us.” The owners of Politics & Prose maintain a strong influence over what their customers have access to, thereby influencing the knowledge and information these customers gain from the store’s collection.
Echoing Muscatine’s desire as a writer to find “exactly the right words for exactly the right moment,” the concluding thought of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is “the right book exactly, at exactly the right time” (Sloan, 288). And echoing that, D.C. political columnist Jill Lawrence wrote, “Somehow [Politics & Prose] always understands which books we want to read, which CDs and greeting cards will appeal to us.”
And the lyrical metaphor stops here, because Politics & Prose really does have “the cards.” Greeting cards, that is. There’s something fascinating about selling this commodity in a bookstore. Specifically, greeting cards, just like books and events, allow for the development of dialogues. In fact, an entire literary tradition is based upon the epistolary structure, and one of its defining characteristics is the uncensored manner in which authors convey information. Likewise, customers can freely express themselves with greeting cards, sparking conversation between sender and receiver. Everything in Politics & Prose comes back to its central function: a place for the exchange of ideas.
In addition to greeting cards, journals, calendars, puzzles, t-shirts, and tote bags are also sold at the store. Much of the merchandise is literary-themed, and almost all are made by local vendors or U.S. manufacturers. The owners wrote that they started selling this merchandise to “better meet the tastes and needs of P&P patrons” (Cards, Journals, Totes and More). These items allow bookstore patrons to express their personal politics in supporting small, independent, and environmentally friendly businesses. They also seem to indicate the owners’ personal politics: Support small and local businesses! (Especially your local bookstore Politics & Prose!)
These non-book items don’t come cheap, though; a single box of 12 Blackwing pencils can cost you $22! The owners claim that with the age of technology, pencils “almost became obsolete.” Apparently people all over the world simply threw out their pens, pencils, and tablets of paper in favor of the latest iPad. This, of course, is ridiculous, as is the original cost of a single Blackwing pencil that sold for $40. Although there is certainly nothing wrong about supporting local businesses, we do have to wonder at what point people draw the line due to the cost. Perhaps it’s time to revisit Cresswell’s ideas regarding the importance of place in relation to physical structures.
Like Obama to Biden, Politics & Prose seems to be a great complement to its surrounding neighborhood of Chevy Case. (Though we can’t seem to decide which is Obama and which is Biden.) Cohen herself noted, “We selected the neighborhood for its unusual demographic characteristics, and the store and customers are a perfect fit with one another.”
Chevy Chase is home to well-educated, higher class citizens, with the median income around $100,953 and about 87.5% of the citizens holding a Bachelor’s degree or higher. These statistics suggest that the owners wanted a market with enough disposable income and leisure time to frequent a bookstore, positing literature and the discussion it elicits as accessible to the economic elite.
As the saying goes, more money equals more power. With that power comes opportunities, such as using the store’s Espresso Book Machine, quirkily nicknamed Opus. Opportunities like this let customers share their ideas with others, as well as learn about the concerns of their fellow book-lovers. In theory, Opus democratizes the power of publication; in practice, it does so if you can afford the printing cost.
This seems a little exclusive. Is exclusivity a characteristic of an arsenal of democracy? Or, perhaps, is it a quality reminiscent of the political machine from Fiorello!?
A political machine, according to Britannica, is “a party organization, headed by a single boss or small autocratic group, that commands enough votes to maintain political and administrative control of a city, county, or state” (“Political Machine” def. 1). Don’t get us wrong; the bookstore isn’t a tyrant. But Politics & Prose is a political and cultural institution, one that commands a sort of control over the D.C. area through its book and speaker selections. Yet throwing aside the grave abuses of power that these organizations have become pejoratively associated with, machines gain loyalty by meeting the needs of individuals and their neighborhoods. Cohen and Meade never intended to exploit the wealth of the area; their goal was to serve the community as a quality bookstore. This factor explains Cohen and Meade’s meticulous efforts surrounding the bookstore’s transition of ownership. That is, Cohen and Meade intentionally continued a tradition of female ownership, even though they originally planned to sell the store to a man.
In 2005, Cohen and Meade were looking to sell their store to Dany Gainsburg, so they tried to secretly incorporate him into the business by hiring him as a regular staff member. When he started spending excessive time in the bosses’ office, the staff naturally got suspicious of him. In their minds, either he was a mole being used to spy on the staff, or some other funky activity was going on. As it turns out, the latter turned out to be true. After coming clean about their plans and making an announcement to the staff, Danny received very little positive feedback.
Shortly after the bookstore was visited by none other than Bill Clinton, Danny caused a political scandal of his own. Miss McLeod, the store’s publications editor, already felt uneasy around Danny in the store. When he kissed her cheek on her birthday, however, she was so uncomfortable that she felt she had no option but to terminate her 18 months of employment at Politics & Prose. After requiring Danny to take off for a month to cool things down amongst the staff, Cohen and Meade had hoped that he would be able to come back and continue on his path to ownership. As it turned out, the staff formed a micro-democracy within the bookstore, and made sure their voices were heard to prevent Danny from coming back to work at the bookshop, much less take over as the owner.
A few years later, Cohen and Meade turned their attention to Graham and Muscatine. At first, only Graham wanted to buy the store, but he brought Muscatine to his meeting with Cohen and Meade. While chatting, Meade told the two that “there’s got to be a woman. There’s no way that a store that’s been under all-female ownership for some 27 years can go to male-only ownership.” Muscatine liked the sound of this, and soon realized her desire to help run the bookstore.
This tradition of the female-run bookstore brings us back to Marion Dodd. In 1916, she and Mary Byers, both recent graduates of Smith College, decided to open a college bookstore called the Hampshire Bookshop. It served the college, as well as the wider Northampton community. This bookstore was a rarity for its time because it was “one of the first bookselling firms in the U.S. to be founded, owned, and managed by women” (Source Smith.edu).
Dodd noted that she and Smith began their bookstore with the “risk and adventure inherent in the undertaking of such an enterprise by women” (Brannon). This spirit of female empowerment also flows through Politics & Prose, providing Cohen, Meade, and Muscatine with a sense of agency and authority.
Publishing historian Barbara A. Brannon felt great love for the Hampshire Bookshop, and it was her research for Bibliographical Society of America that told the story of how Dodd’s bookshop did the government’s job during WWII in gathering support for the war. Whereas Dodd’s female-owned bookshop used its political power to get the people to understand why the war was necessary and support the government’s choices for fighting, Politics & Prose is fighting a battle for a different kind of democratic idea. Politics & Prose may not be a space to gather for a bond party, but it has certainly provided the space for other political enterprises.
And these enterprises have demonstrated the complexity of the politics at play within Washington, D.C.’s preeminent bookstore, neither completely arsenal-of-democracy-ey nor political-machine-ey, but definitely discursively driven. The bookstore’s politics inform its definition of literature, and its literature informs its definition of politics, and power is the product of this process—a product in the form of commercial objects and authoritative status.
At Politics & Prose, literature is a political and discursive opportunity. Here, literature falls in that gray gutter space between freedom of speech, the booksellers’ influence, and economic privilege. For many book lovers, it is preferential to view books as ends within themselves. At Politics & Prose, however, the books and other verbal aspects of the store are merely providing the vocabulary for the discussion. When put in the context of the bookstore, the notion of power translates into the financial powers of the neighborhood, the owners’ power over the patrons, the struggle for power during book discussions, and the power of ideas within literature.
Google Maps: Chevy Chase
Google Maps: Politics and Prose Bookstore
Articles and Links
“An Indie Celebration on April 30.” Politics and Prose Bookstore. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.
Anderson, Tom. “Politics and Prose Social Network: How Much is the Beloved D.C. Bookstore Really Worth?” Washington City Paper. N.p., 29 Oct. 2010. Web. 04 May 2016.
“Book Discussion on [Anyone Can Grow Up].” C-SPAN, 11 May 2003. Web. 05 May 2016.
Brown, Emma. “Carla Cohen Dies; Co-founder of D.C. Bookstore Politics and Prose.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 11 Oct. 2010. Web. 21 Mar. 2016. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/11/AR2010101102811.html?sid=ST2010101102828>.
“Exhibition: Marion Dodd and The Hampshire Bookshop.” Smith College. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2016.
Hodges, Lauren. “A Community Spine.” The Los Angeles Review of Books. The Los Angeles Review of Books, 14 Oct. 2014. Web. 21 Mar. 2016. <https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/community-spine/?utm_medium=twitter&utmsource=linesandgraphs>.
Muscatine, Lissa and Brad Graham. “Cards, Journals, Totes, and More.” Politics and Prose Bookstore. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.
Parker, Kathleen. “Plato would be horrified by Trump’s rise”. The Washington Post. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.
“Political Machine” Definition (1) from Britannica Encyclopedia <http://www.britannica.com/topic/political-machine>
“Politics” Definitions (1 & 2) from Oxford English Dictionary <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/237575?redirectedFrom=politics#eid>
Roberts, Roxanne. “Hillary Clinton and Lissa Muscatine: From First Lady and Speechwriter to Author and Bookseller.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 15 June 2014. Web. 29 Apr. 2016.
Rosenwald, Michael S. “Politics and Prose Has Found a Buyer.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 28 Mar. 2011. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.
Sidman, Jessica. “Little Red Fox Owner Will Operate Coffeehouse and Wine Bar at Politics & Prose.” Young Hungry RSS. N.p., 5 Apr. 2016. Web. 08 Apr. 2016.
“The Story of Politics and Prose.” Politics and Prose Bookstore. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
Trachtenberg, Jeffrey A. “Succession Plot At Bookstore Took A Surprise Twist.” The Wall Street Journal. N.p., 21 Mar. 2005. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.
Wildman, Sarah. “Coveted by Jewish Bidders, D.C. Bookstore Finds New Owners.” Forward. N.p., 20 Mar. 2011. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.
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/>.
Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade <http://www.politics-prose.com/our-history>
Danny Gainsburg <http://www.c-span.org/person/?dannygainsburg>
Hamiltome and Chalkboard <https://www.instagram.com/politics_prose/?hl=en>
Hillary Clinton and Lissa Muscatine <https://img.washingtonpost.com/rf/image_400w/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2014/06/14/Others/Images/2014-06-13/hillary%20lissa%2011402707670.jpg?uuid=Yrjx4vNfEeONZgKVmOmK3Q>
J. K. Rowling <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/gallery/2010/06/09/GA2010060904320.html>
Lissa and Brad w/ Meade & Mr. Cohen <http://www.shelf-awareness.com/issue.html?issue=2336#m25635>
Opus The Espresso Book Machine <https://c1.staticflickr.com/7/6041/6256317164_b132e2154c_b.jpg>
Various Pictures in Timeline and Floorplans <https://www.google.com/maps/place/Politics+%26+Prose+Bookstorefirstname.lastname@example.org,-77.0718449,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x89b7c9b992f1a9f7:0xb82a9184a0d413af!8m2!3d38.9554717!4d-77.0696562>
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.
Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004.
Sloan, Robin. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012. Print.