Fifteen minutes should have been enough time to find a good seat.
At a lot of bookstores, it would have been—especially when the main attraction was a former labor secretary’s book on income inequality. But Politics and Prose is not a lot of bookstores. So, with every chair occupied and every aisle clogged, I rubbernecked at Robert Reich from behind a column in the spirituality section.
What followed was a pretty typical P&P event: It opened with a long thank-you to the store’s owners, Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade, both 74; it continued into a fairly meaty reading; it ended with intelligent audience questions that crackled with a civic energy that is hard to find in Washington. It was pretty easy to get romantic about the whole scene: We were book people and our tribal council was a purple-awning storefront on Connecticut Avenue near the Maryland border. As the audience queued up to buy Reich’s book, I overheard a red-haired clerk tell a patron at the cash register that Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan recently bought a copy, too.
Blocks away, one of the tribal council’s founders had only a few weeks to live. Carla Cohen was suffering from cancer of the bile ducts, fading in and out of lucidity. In her last public appearance, she and Meade, her business partner of 26 years, accepted the Legacy Award from the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association on Sept 21. It was the first time the honor went to booksellers. All the previous winners were prominent authors, such as Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Auster, and Pete Hamill.
For devotees of the store, the folks who flock to its author events, join its book clubs, or just appreciate its stellar inventory and knowledgeable staff, concern for Cohen’s health was also tied up in worries about P&P’s future. In June, Cohen and Meade announced that they wanted to sell the store and retire. The news created a flurry of offers. But the glowing descriptions of the store in Washington Post and New York Times articles about the sale represented a mixed blessing: Cohen and Meade were surprised they had to fight the perception that the store was shutting down. One confused fan wrote on Politics and Prose’s Facebook page: “Have you read this article in Washington Post? Is the bookstore really closing? :-(”
The store tried to head off these worries. “No, the bookstore is far from closing,” read its Facebook response. “Our fiscal year ended June 30th and we had record sales for the 2009-2010 year, up over last year by more then 7 percent. We are not yet accepting offers, but when we do, we are confident that we can find a buyer right in the P&P tradition.” By August, Cohen and Meade had released an open letter telling customers the sales process would take “at least nine months before changes were made.”
But even as management remained tight-lipped, the process of figuring out P&P’s future was taking shape. Cohen and Meade quietly brought in Rich Goldberg, a New York-based consultant whose parents live just over the D.C.-Maryland line in Chevy Chase, to help sell the store. To date, Goldberg says, the owners have received inquiries from about 50 interested parties. The field was narrowed to a dozen, but Goldberg, Meade and Cohen’s family won’t say who they are. The Times identified a group led by literary agent Raphael Sagalyn and Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic, along with Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic (and no relation to Rich Goldberg), and another party headed by Nicholas Kittrie, a law professor at American University, as prospective buyers. Neither will say whether they’ve made the cut. David Cohen, a former president of Common Cause, now controls his late wife’s stake in the store. Their son Aaron, an experienced Internet executive who has been involved in the sales of several companies, is advising. David Cohen describes the ideal new owners as “people who can move in multiple circles like Carla and Barbara. They were comfortable talking to publishers, comfortable talking to editors, comfortable talking to journalists and of course, comfortable with the customers.”
Cohen died Oct. 11. The owner search has been halted during the mourning. At her funeral on Oct. 13, her son Aaron told a capacity crowd at Tifereth Israel Synagogue that he’d promised his mother he would find owners worthy enough to continue her legacy. Now the search continues.
Who would want to buy a bookstore now? The printed word is supposed to be deteriorating like a sand castle in the digital ocean. First, Amazon devastated bookstore revenue with e-commerce. Then the company attacked actual books with its Kindle reading device. This past July, Amazon sold more e-books than hardcovers. The Barnes & Noble megachain—once the bête noire of indies like P&P—has put itself up for sale and converted its stores into showrooms for its Nook, a Kindle knockoff. Borders, the also-ran chain of bookstores, announced last week it has created a system to let anyone publish their own electronic book for $89.99 a pop. It too has an e-reader, the Kobo. All these trends spell even quicker doom for independent bookstores. Or so the story goes.