Politics and Prose's Social Network How much is a beloved bookstore really worth?

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Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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.

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Our Readers Say

wow. lovely depiction of p&p but some of the comments/errors made regarding teaching for change's bookstore at busboy's in poets are really unfortunate. the teaching for change bookstore (which is only located inside of the BB&P restaurant at 14th and v sts, nw) actually hosts several FREE author events a week. the open mic referred to in the article is hosted by the restaurant, not the bookstore (they are actually two cooperative but separate entities). and the dance party for alice walker's book was held at the 5th and K sts busboys with which the teaching for change bookstore is not affiliated.

i'm a washingtonian and appreciate p&p's presence. but the bookstore at 14th and V bb&p is particularly special to me because of its commitment to and focus on promoting progressive titles and author events. and i read ALL of the books i purchase there (at least, all the ones i don't give as gifts).
Great article... but why the Busboys and Poets misrepresentations? The vast majority of events are free at BB&P and the atmosphere at the bookstore really brings together diverse people into one vibrant place. It, too, is a DC institution and I believe the successes of Busboys and Politics/Prose are COMPLIMENTARY. They, simply, both echo the same message; making books and exchanging thoughtful ideas 'cool' in Washington.
While I think P&P is great, Teaching for Change’s Busboys and Poets Bookstore is an incredible place. I was first introduced to Teaching for Change and Busboys and Poets by my graduate college professor at Trinity College where I was working toward a degree in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus in Reading. Once I experienced the large selection of multicultural titles, I was hooked. The Teaching for Change Bookstore at Busboys and Poets is a great source for children’s literature that speaks to a variety of audiences from early emergent readers to adults. The high-quality literature selection encourages children and adults to actively engage in a wide variety of genre and create meaningful connections to themes, characters, and ideas. I appreciate the collection of rich and authentic literature as well as the free author events.
Like many in the Washington literary community, I mourn Carla Cohen's passing, and before that, worried about the news that Politics & Prose was on the block. I'm glad for the hopeful information in this article that promises a strong future for this amazing independent bookstore--a stellar model of success in an industry where success is lately hard to find. But I'm disturbed by the many errors here about another superlative literary venue in our city, Busboys & Poets Bookstore, operated by Teaching for Change. Nowhere in Washington can you find such a dedicated collection of great (and diverse) world literature and important and timely books on government, social justice, education and international issues.

For me it's as equal a destination for good reading for all ages as Politics & Prose, and its events (free) and authors have as much cachet as the uptown institution. Because the shelf space is indeed limited, the helpful staff is more than willing to order any book for you, though the selection is so thoughtful I often will find a vital book I didn't even know I needed. The event space is exceptional, and the open mic nights (also free) are an important community and arts effort that platforms many writers and poets whose work doesn't have big publisher backing. I cherish both establishments, and wish this article had described the smaller store more fairly. Thank you.
Politics and Prose is a wonderful bookstore no doubt, but to argue that the Teaching for Change bookstore in Busboys and Poets on 14th and V is like a kiosk is outrageous. Not only does Busboys have the best poetry collection anywhere in the city, it has become the place to get books on politics, on progressive movements, on diversity. One of the failures to adopt to a digital culture is to feel that to praise one entity requires the diminishing of another. The two stores serve both represent the eclectic and ambitious possibilities of the city. Unfortunately, they also represent the real threat of places like this only appealing to a certain class of people. One thing I admire about Busboys is the consistent ability to pack the house, for often unheard poets, at the Nine on the Ninth Events. This reading series, run by their Poet-in-Residence, Derrick Weston Brown is free - and brings a wildly diverse mix of people in one room once a month to listen to poetry. I’ve benefitted from reading there - and know any poet who has would never complain about audience.

I have been saddened by the disappearance of independent bookstores in our city and hope that new ownership will not dilute P & P's presence in DC. It is unfortunate that the article pitted two great bookstores against each other rather than celebrate what each has to offer our community. Living in a diverse city, I know that I can easily find children's books at Busboys and Poets that reflect and honor the diversity of my children and their friends. The staff at Busboys and Poets are incredibly helpful and willing to find books that I learn about through Teaching Tolerance and other progressive magazines and websites. I work with a lot of people who visit DC and I always encourage them to go to Busboys and Poets for dinner, events and, most importantly, the bookstore. Being surrounded by progressive books that offer insight into the challenging issues of our time and realizing that there are creative resources to help us begin conversations with our children about creating change is a rare and inspiring experience that everyone needs to have!
Busboys and Poets has a great bookstore operated by an NGO and gives back to the community more than any other restaurant in washington, dc. All their author events are free. Let's get our facts right next time, City Paper. Busboys and Poets is a great concept and jealousy shouldn't be a motivation for a story.
Count me as another person who doesn't see why the writer here needs to slam one independent bookstore in order to praise another. I absolutely treasure the bookstore at Busboys. The workers at Busboys are incredibly knowledgeable about a dizzying array of books. I remember telling the store manager Don Allen that I was into detective noir and his response, "Have you ever read one set in Laos?" speaks for itself. At both Busboys and P&P, there is a strong sense of community, conversation, and titles well-beyond the norm. The fact that Busboys is run by Teaching for Change, only adds to its sense of mission and makes it a truly special place. Of course Busboys is 1/10 the size of P and P. But a brilliant restaurant with just four tables is a detail, not a determining feature. Busboys is a brilliant bookstore and if you don't believe me, see for yourself.
As an alternative high school teacher, the Teaching for Change Bookstore at Busboys and Poets is one of the few places I can find great books (both for myself and my students) and feel good about supporting a local, independent bookstore and excellent organization. When I have books I need to order for gifts or for my classroom, I simply e-mail Don at the bookstore and he places the orders for me, so I rarely set foot in big box bookstores. Also, I have met several excellent authors at the free author events at Busboys and Poets hosted by Teaching for Change.
Some people seem a little touchy. I didn't take the piece as a slam of Busboys and Poets...just that they were different. Also, if their book section "felt like a kiosk" to the writer, then it felt like a kiosk, you know?
Good point, Scott. The responses answer the article's subtitle, though: How much is a beloved bookstore really worth?

A lot.

It is unfortunate that in this day and time we are still subjected to pitting one against the other. Promoting competition between two of the most successful progressive venues in the city is deplorable and does not serve our community’s best interest. This would have been a great article by merely telling Politics & Prose great story, mourning their lost and discussing their future. The criticisms of Busboys & Poets were unfounded and unnecessary. As for instance, if I were to criticize Politics & Prose for hosting Condoleezza Rice's book event and charge that Howard Zinn must be turning over in his grave would be unfair. I patronize both establishments and met Alice Walker and Howard Zinn initially at Politics & Prose then enjoyed them both up close and personal at Busboys and Poets. Does that make me old and cool? Both of these establishments are products of their locations as is the inflammatory insight in this article the product of the narrow focus of this author's life experiences.
Both Busboys and Poets and Politics and Prose are unique, independent gems of DC. They have different vibes but both merit respect for what they provide: an intellectually stimulating environment in which race, politics and culture are created and debated. Most of the B&P and P&P events I attend attract a knowledgeable crowd who enjoy an interesting conversation about what they read. While a few events at B&P might require a cover, the vast majority is free and provide access to beer or a glass of wine. In the debate over the pros and cons between B&P and P&P, let’s not forget the other independent bookstores around the city, such as Reiter’s, Kramerbooks, and SisterSpace, for they are fighting the same technological advances that are phasing out the indies like Olsson’s. Let’s support all of our precious independent bookstores.
Through the 18 years I've worked to train new bookstore owners and advise independent booksellers, I must correct your use of 'gross margin' and calculation of a 15% profit margin. Not! There are many successful bookstore institutions like P&P who do so many things right, but keep in mind that about $6 of every $10 book goes back to the publisher, then another $2 goes to staff, $1 for rent, and there isn't possibly 15% after everybody else gets paid.
Most booksellers are in the business because they respect and are enriched by books and reading, enjoy creating a sense of community, and love using their skills in the book industry.
There are communities who have lost ... and will lose ... their chain stores and this leaves a tremendous opportunity for entrepreneurs around the country who want to establish a community bookstore. Ebooks are another way to read books and indie booksellers will have a way to sell Google editions (device agnostic!) and still get a piece of this business as it continues to grow and will eventually level off.
If you enjoy browsing for books and appreciate the curated selection of your independent bookstore, don't go home and buy from Amazon. Recognize the value of having local businesses on your Main Street and the presence caring members of your business community who support the arts as well as Little League. A sustainable indie bookstore in a town not only the result of savvy business owners, it is also the mark of citizens who value its presence and wish to patronize local businesses to ensure the community's vitality.

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