Arts Desk

Did Politics & Prose Boot a Customer for Inquiring About the Marquis de Sade?

Darrow MontgomeryHussein Ibish has beef with venerable upper Northwest book shop Politics & Prose. In Issue No. 22 of magazine The Baffler, Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, tells a story about something most of us probably couldn't imagine happening at the freethinking book shop: He got thrown out on his ass.

Ibish's crime? Inquiring about the works of a certain sexually devious French aristocrat, the Marquis de Sade.

... as I walked up to join the store’s cultivated and edgy communitas, I committed a terrible error: I asked a clerk where I might find the works of the Marquis de Sade. My request made its way up through an increasingly consternated group of shop assistants; I had to repeat it several times before they fully registered what I was asking for. At that point, I was told to leave the store immediately. The scene concluded on a perfect grace note when I was sternly conducted to the store’s exit by a female employee who was obviously French. It was as if I had asked for a how-to manual for murder, kidnapping, or child abuse—or, at a minimum, the most objectionable form of pornography.

Wait, what? Look—I find the marquis' obsession with rape deeply objectionable. But Ibish's tale of a Politics & Prose employee—"obviously French" or not—getting so riled up about the infamous writer two centuries after his death emitted a whiff of embellissement.

I wasn't the only one who thought so. On Twitter, Ibish has been getting copious side-eye from people who aren't buying his story. But he insists it's true, telling two of his critics, "I would not stoop to that. I can make my arguments perfectly well within the known facts."

But here's what Ibish doesn't mention in his piece, and later clarified on Twitter: that this alleged unceremonious ejection took place 15 years ago. "Why people assume that was less than 10 years ago, as opposed to 15 (which it was), or indeed 25 for that matter, I have no idea," Ibish writes in an email to Washington City Paper. "It did not seem relevant to the point, either to me or my editors."

When a staff member pointed out the Baffler piece to him this morning, Politics & Prose co-owner Brad Graham didn't realize Ibish was talking about something so far in the past. At first, he says, "I thought this was some lame form of satire because it's just so crazy." He checked to see if the shop currently carried any Marquis de Sade works, and found it did: one copy of Justine. No current employees, as far as he knows, are French—at least not obviously French. The story to him sounded simply fabricated. But when I told Graham the alleged incident took place in 1998, he volunteered to check with two employees who worked at the shop at the time, as well as one of the shop's original owners, Barbara Meade.

The two employees said they weren't aware of any staff member ever booting a customer for harboring a jones for the marquis. But Meade says she did employ a French woman between 1998 and 2002.

Gasp!

"Don't get too excited," says Graham, who spoke to Meade as an intermediary. He says Meade still doesn't believe the story rings true, because the French woman in question just "wasn't that kind of person." The two employees, too, don't believe she would have acted that way. According to Graham, who called the retired owner at her home, Meade says, "It sounds too surreal." To that, Ibish responds on Twitter, "I'm not surprised people find it surreal. So did I. How else would I recall a retail experience 15 years later?"

Graham doesn't know if the French woman still lives in the area, and he declined to give her name to Washington City Paper. Only one person can get to the bottom of Ibish's story, and it's the former employee in question. Please alert us if you know any D.C. area women who match Ibish's description—obviously French, with an easily tapped, just-under-the-surface contempt for the long-dead sexual deviant.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

This post has been updated to include comments from Hussein Ibish.

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  • xyz

    This is silly. Either the store had the books or it didn't. If it did, any employee would have directed him to the correct shelf. A sale is a sale. If it didn't, the employee would have simply have said we don't stock that particular author. I wonder, if the guy's story has any truth, in what tone and manner he inquired, and whether he chose to discuss his interests in detail with some hapless clerk.

  • mister clean

    Sounds just like that place. Of course the staff today can't believe it. They don't see themselves that way.

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