But the tricky thing about goodwill and the cachet Politics and Prose has is that, while it takes years to build, it can disappear quickly. A budget-minded reduction in payroll could bite into a store’s reputation for knowledgeable booksellers. A move to a Metro-friendly location—suggested by some as a way to compete with newcomers like 14th Street NW’s Busboys and Poets—could make the store less convenient for the Upper Northwest and Montgomery Country types whose Volvos regularly fill the current parking lot. Or new owners could just accidentally do something that telegraphs their inability to get it, whatever it is.
What no accountant will ever truly figure out is how much of the goodwill will leave with Meade and Cohen. Meade, for her part, plans to devote some time to passing the baton: She says she’ll work at the store for at least one year after the sale because many of the prospective buyers do not have direct experience in bookselling.
You can thank Ronald Reagan for Politics and Prose—or at least his election, which left Cohen out of a job as a federal housing official in 1981. Three years of soul-searching led her to launch a bookstore, but the passion for ideas was present at the beginning.
Growing up in Baltimore, the eldest of six children, Carla Furstenberg was opinionated. Her brother, Mark, a baker and former owner of Marvelous Market and Breadline D.C., remembers Carla sitting on top of the staircase as a child to listen to her father’s Americans for Democratic Action chapter meetings. She campaigned against Maryland’s loyalty oaths in 1952, at age 16, and marched in Birmingham, Ala., in 1965, at age 29. She met her future husband, David, at an Antioch College ADA meeting. The Cohens moved to Washington in 1963. Carla pushed for better urban-planning practices, first at the House Subcommittee on the City and later the Carter administration.
Carla didn’t limit her strong opinions to politics. Betsy Levin, a lifelong friend, recalled at Carla’s funeral that even as a kid, Carla had discerning tastes about literature, frowning on Betsy’s preference for comic books. Levin liked to think of Carla as an 18th century salon hostess because of all the stimulating seder dinners and holiday parties she threw in Washington. “Politics and Prose was her salon writ large,” she said.
Barbara Meade was the moon to Carla Cohen’s sun. Meade was an experienced bookseller by the time she was responded to Carla’s classified ad seeking a store manager. Whereas Cohen was brash and enthusiastic, Meade is thoughtful and reserved. The pair’s collaboration began in 1984 with a small shop on Connecticut Avenue in 1984 and a single part-time employee who worked the night shift. By 1989, Politics and Prose outgrew its space and relocated to its current address across the street. Police blocked off the thoroughfare as staff, friends and neighbors carried boxes of books to the new store. They added a café and doubled the store’s size during the 1990s. P&P expanded again in 2003 and now has 9,000 square feet of bookselling space, Meade says. (The average Barnes & Noble is 26,000.)
Only a few failures mark the store’s management record. Secondhand Prose, Politics and Prose’s used bookstore, lasted just two years. “We learned not to get involved in businesses we know nothing about,” Meade says. And a first attempt to sell the store so Cohen and Meade could retire famously went sour. In 2001, the pair hired Danny Gainsburg, who had owned a custom T-shirt business. Gainsburg bought a stake in the business, striking a deal to eventually take over the store. In the meantime, he would learn the ropes. But Cohen and Meade didn’t tell the staff, who bristled under Gainburg’s management style, that he was the heir apparent.
It’s a sign of the store’s iconic status that the ensuing meltdown was chronicled in The Wall Street Journal. The Journal reported that tensions boiled over when he kissed a staffer on the cheek on her birthday and she quit shortly thereafter. Cohen and Meade met with an organizational psychologist to work out the trauma, but staff would have none of it. They eventually bought back Gainburg’s stake. When I asked what lessons she learned from Gainburg mishap, Meade said “not to rush in.”
What P&P had figured out—better than the rest of the bookselling business—was that it’s not enough to just expect your inventory, and your staff, and your location in a book-reading ZIP code to create a community. When it first opened, Politics and Prose held five events per month. That figure doubled by 1989. But it was in 2002 that they hit what Meade calls “a tipping point.” Now the store hosts about 35 events each month. “The store has an event list of the most prominent authors of any independent bookstore in the country,” says Oren Teicher, chief executive of the American Booksellers Association. Politics and Prose holds about 400 events annually, including 50 kid-friendly ones.