Arts Desk

Response to Sale of Politics and Prose: Preserving a Local Literary Icon

Though there’s been some shocked response to the news that Forest Hills bookstore Politics and Prose is for sale, there hasn’t exactly been surprise. Owners Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade opened the store twenty-six years ago and are now both 74 years old. Cohen is also seriously ill, reportedly with cancer.

Neighborhood resident Terry Whitehouse’s eyes widened as she learned that Politics and Prose may soon change hands upon leaving the store, shopping bag in one hand and dog leash in the other. “Barbara and Carla have owned it for a long time,” she said. “I guess it’s time for them to pass it on and retire.”

For Whitehouse, it’s not just the merchandise and author talks that bring her in multiple times a week. She also likes going in because the store is canine-friendly. “Sometimes they give him a doggy bone,” she said, pointing to her dog, Boy.

In an age of e-books and chain stores, Politics and Prose has been able to survive—and even thrive—due to the respect it's gained both locally and nationally. The store is a prime book tour destination, with publishers competing to get their authors a coveted speaking gig.

Peter Osnos, founder and editor-at-large of PublicAffairs books and a reporter and editor at various bureaus of the Washington Post for 18 years, considers Politics and Prose's local identity to be integral to the store's success. From the beginning, “Carla and Barbara had a natural gift for servicing their community,” he said. “The future of independent bookstores is what they’ve done—they’ve made themselves an indispensible civic asset.”

They've been a beacon for independent bookstores throughout the country in a changing publishing climate, but now Cohen and Meade face the challenge of transitioning out of the industry. This is not the first time the partners have considered their future beyond Politics and Prose.

In 2003, Cohen and Meade unsuccessfully tried to bring in a new business partner, Danny Gainsburg. According to the Wall Street Journal, they sold him an equity position and wanted him to work his way up in the business with the understanding that he would eventually assume sole ownership. But staff, unclear about Gainsburg’s role in the business and uncertain of his future plans for the store, rebelled. Gainsburg sold back his shares after two years. A year later, in 2006, Meade and Cohen were meeting with an outside business consultant and devising a three-to-five year exit strategy.

“Succession is a very tricky business,” said Osnos. “I hope that they find a good buyer.”

David Patterson, who worked at Politics and Prose from 1997 to 2000 and is now an agent with Foundry Literary + Media in New York, expressed faith that Washington’s literary grandmothers would be able to find a suitable successor.

“Politics and Prose is a Washington institution, a national literary landmark, a thriving cultural and community center, and–this is important–a big beautiful bookstore and a great business,” he said. “Personally I feel confident that Barbara and Carla will have suitors who recognize all of these things, who will want to keep the traditions going, and who will feel they have the abilities to do so.

"Barbara and Carla have set the bar very high, in running such an extraordinary bookstore so well and for so long in shifting environments, but they have also shown that it can be done.”

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