“Independent booksellers are not selling, they are liquidating,” says Jay Fishman, a business appraiser, bibliophile and Kindle enthusiast. He laments the closing of Ardmore Paperbook Bookstore a year ago, which was his favorite shop near Philadelphia. “An independent bookstore could be a lifestyle business, but it needs something—a knowledgeable staff, a theme, or events—or it is not surviving.”
Politics and Prose has all those attributes in abundance. Which explains the sort of literary exceptionalism that has at least some fans convinced that the store will never meet the same grim fate as former local rivals like Olsson’s or the Trover Shop. “We have built the community and the community has built us,” Carla Cohen used to say. That community, forged in significant part by the store’s once-novel, now-standard tactic of turning itself into a forum for author events and discussion groups, is valuable. Meade told the Times this summer that she thought Politics and Prose was worth “somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million.” She now dismisses the remark as an “off-the-cuff” estimate. When you look at the numbers, you’ll see why.
So what is P&P really worth? I put the question to Jeff Jones, a business appraiser and broker from Houston. Jones had never heard of Politics and Prose, but has appraised at least 15 independent bookstores over his 40-year career—a significant figure, given that independent bookstores are rarely appraised or sold through brokers because they typically don’t generate enough revenue to attract serious investors. Jones was immediately suspicious. “You are lucky to get one bidder of a bookstore, let alone 50,” he says, noting the average bookstore does about $1 million in annual sales.
We did some back-of-the-envelope calculations for Politics and Prose. Our results represented an educated guess, at best: P&P is a closely held business and does not disclose all its financial information. Meade says Politics and Prose did more than $7 million in total sales for the past fiscal year, which ended in June. It’s conceivable that booksellers who are paragons of efficiency could pinch pennies enough to produce a gross profit margin of 15 percent, or $1.1 million per year if you round up. That’s a harder margin to maintain, though, when you’re paying salaries for the 55 experienced employees at Politics and Prose. Many bookstores sell for 15 percent of annual sales plus the value of their inventory as a rule of thumb, according to Jones. He estimates the inventory of a bookstore Politics and Prose’s size would range from $1.5 million to $1.8 million (large, specialized bookstores like P&P tend to keep more inventory around longer than the average indie bookseller). Under these projections, the store’s tangible assets may be worth nearly $3 million. No wonder Cohen and Meade received so many offers, probably for even less than the on-paper value of the business. People know a bargain when they see one.
Not everything is rosy. The business has some complicated real estate issues. The current lease at Politics and Prose expires in two years or so, Meade says. She is renegotiating now, but the current location, sandwiched between a CVS and a dry cleaner, offers no room to expand. Its café, meanwhile, is co-owned by James Alefantis and Javier Rivas. Alefantis also owns nearby restaurants Comet Ping Pong and Buck’s Fishing & Camping. Politics and Prose’s contract with Modern Times Coffeehouse expires in 2014. One of the top priorities of any new owners would be to figure out how to expand and work out an arrangement with the coffeeshop.
Accounting dorks call the price buyers pay for a business over and above the value of its tangible assets “goodwill.” It’s an inherently squishy concept. Under old English law, goodwill was defined as the chance customers will “return to the old stand,” says Fishman. By that definition, Politics and Prose has plenty of social street cred. The store spins a web that envelops the entire book world. To glimpse a fraction of its strands, scroll through the dozen of memorials to Carla posted on the store’s website. You’ll see tributes from successful novelists, such as Andrew Sean Greer, author of The Confessions of Max Tivoli, who took Carla’s daughter Eve to prom, and Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer-prize winning author of March, as well as condolences from literary agents and sales reps from major publishing houses. “There are hundreds of writers who imagined Carla as their ideal reader,” bestselling D.C.-based journalist/author Ron Suskind told the crowd of 250 people at the 2010 Heschel Vision Awards on Oct. 24. “She is a tribal leader, like Abraham,” he said.