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

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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.

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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.

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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