Social Politics With a Side of Prose
If you had taken a stroll through the Politics and Prose bookstore in 1999 and again today, you would naturally see aspects of change present in the bookstore. Carla Cohen, an original co-owner of Politics and Prose, was adamant that change be ever-present in the running of the bookstore. While methods of sales and print calendars were kept fresh under her direction, the community surrounding the bookstore has remained rather consistent. Since Politics and Prose has moved from their smaller lot in Forest Hills to their current, much larger building on Connecticut Avenue in 1999, the storefront and surrounding businesses have seen minimal change. In fact, the commercial life of Connecticut Avenue had already seen its growth and development twenty years prior with the rise of the department store consumerism that swept across America. Rather than examining change throughout the bookstore’s history, we will instead examine the development of the word “politics” and the role it has played within the history of Politics and Prose.
As any common dictionary wielder could tell you, politics is a term used in reference to the doings of a government of a country, especially concerning conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power (Merriam-Webster). Interestingly enough, this textbook definition has little relevance to the Politics and Prose bookstore. The combination of its proximity to Washington, D.C. and the name of the bookstore itself is misleading, especially about the purpose that the bookstore has served to the surrounding community.
Within the bookstore, the term politics has transformed into a social aspect, rather than a governmental concept. When Cohen was creating Politics and Prose with her business partner Barbara Meade, her intention was not to design a bookstore that solely sought patrons with government jobs. The naming of the store was more of a personal whim, one that Meade remembers as being an initial source of revenue difficulty. You can read about more of Meade’s memories of the early days of Politics and Prose here.
This is not to say that the owners were excluding the political lifestyle of many of their customers. Cohen, being a former political staff member, was highly aware of the political population living just five miles away in the heart of D.C. The important distinction is that Chevy Chase, very much unlike D.C., is a place where the young, ambitious, and high-class political workers go to settle into the domestic stage of their lives. Owning a business in this political-social sphere in the Chevy Chase neighborhood, meant that knowing their customers allowed Cohen and Meade to monitor and refine the selection they offered to patrons. In this regard, I believe Cohen and Meade saw their responsibility as booksellers in the similar manner that Christopher Morley did when he wrote “it s out duty sometimes to enlarge those rather meager escapes into print which are all that the official view of literature is likely to let us have” (Morley 53).
Archibald MacLeish, a more extreme voice among the debate of the role of booksellers, wrote that “All of us will agree that there is no man or group of men of our generation – above all no man or group of men of those who deal with books – who can escape responsibility for the evil which has fallen on our time” (MacLeish 10). Cohen and Meade understood the need to serve the local demographic, particularly during a time when the “Amazon Affect” was a strong rival force to independent bookstores. I certainly do not believe that the owners saw the climate in which Politics and Prose was created as evil and in need of redirection; instead, I believe the owners saw the independent bookstore as a chance to open up avenues to local readers and writers of a wealthier, political-based social class.
In general, Chevy Chase as a place is about the domestic lifestyle of people who work in high-paying government jobs. Consequently this is a community of consumers shaped by politics, but even stronger is the influence of the domestic construct. Families make up a large portion of the population; more specifically, well-to-do families with the iconic 2.5 children, a house with a white picket fence, and a two-car garage make up the majority of the consumer population. Therefore, the definition of politics is skewed by the perception created by this domestic lifestyle. The resulting notion of politics is one that was not likely what the owners originally expected.
Cohen and Meade initially intended to sell “Literature,” as imagined by Raymond Williams, in Politics and Prose. Instead, it quickly became evident that the consumer base they were in required books for numerous reasons, not simply the highbrow Literature. These families have little interest in reading solely about politicians and the latest in political movements, particularly when their leisure time is ideally an escape from the topic they face every other day in the workplace. Therefore, the notion of “politics” in the Chevy Chase area, more specifically within Politics and Prose, has transformed to become about social interaction, with an emphasis on creating a space to attract readers of all interests and personalities, resulting in a social atmosphere amongst intellectual individuals.
This customer base, primarily made up of families, requires cookbooks to liven the family dinner table night after night, as well as children’s books to further enrich the lives of children whose parents understand the importance of literacy. And what of the fantastical romance novels read by teenagers and housewives alike, or the biographies of big-name sports professionals that can be a source of bonding between a father and his son? I imagine any evening of the work week for the average Chevy Chase family involves the family being well fed, likely from the independent grocery stores dotted along Connecticut Avenue. The children have been tucked into bed after a bedtime story, and the marriage disputes have been settled over a glass of wine, so that fantastical romance novels are no longer needed. After all of these familial needs have been met, only then can the family unit look to the local bookstore for suggestions of books that fit into the Literature with a capital-L category, be it classical novels or the most recent book released on the topic of the presidential election.
The current owners have continued this balance between the social sphere and the political sphere. They host author events such as Bob Shea’s “Ballet Cat” pre-school series, but the day prior they have Michael Hayden talk about his book Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror that touches on controversial political topics post-9/11. They also recently posted to their blog about the political buzz around the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. In this post we can see the interest that current owners Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine have in not only informing their customers about a political matter, but also suggesting books to readers in order to create a better-informed public, as MacLeish so adamantly encouraged.
Politics and Prose has a unique opportunity in the Chevy Chase neighborhood to bring an alternative meaning to the word “politics.” As Mark Laframboise says when asked about the nature of the bookstore, “the store has always been about change” (30th Anniversary). Since opening its doors in 1984, that change has been seen in the physical layout of the bookstore, the owners of the store, as well as in the way in which the bookstore has influenced the concept of politics in the Washington, D.C. area. Despite the difficult beginning to the bookstore’s history due to the off-putting name, thirty years of business have proven that the social-political bookstore has found its niche in the Chevy Chase community.
When explaining the change of hands, Muscatine said that it was of great importance to her and Graham that they “retain the ethos of the store, to retain the essence of what makes it great and made it great, to retain what their (Cohen’s and Meade’s) vision was for it” (30th Anniversary). These new owners, as they build on the solid foundation of the bookstore from the last three decades, are looking to develop new ways to interest people in the independent bookstore. The one constant that remains infallible is that the bookstore acts as a place where politics transforms into a social construct.
MacLeish, Archibald, and Bruce Rogers. A Free Man’s Books. Mount Vernon, NY: Peter Pauper, 1942. Print.
Morley, Christopher. Ex Libris Carissimis. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 1932. Print.