Saturday, February 1, 2014

Bookstore of the Month: Politics and Prose

Politics and Prose
5015 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC  20008
202-364-1919 or 800-722-0790
Politics and Prose on Facebook
Politics and Prose on Twitter

I'm often tempted to think of Politics and Prose as "the nation's bookstore."  Like everything else in the Capitol City, even the smallest business--whether it's a tapas restaurant on 7th Street or a brake repair shop in Adams Morgan--takes on larger-than-life significance simply from its proximity to the White House and ground-zero policy-making.  And Politics and Prose itself (whose stacks I often haunted during the two years I worked at the Pentagon) is large and full of life--but not so "full of itself" that you don't feel the human touch the minute you walk in the door.

Established in 1984, Politics and Prose was almost handicapped by its very name at the start.  People coming into the store thought they'd only find Washington memoirs or wonk-head guides to the city.  "Where are the cookbooks?  Do you have a children's section?  I'm looking for a biography of Olivia Newton-John--can you help?"....that sort of thing.  But owners Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade stuck with their vision and P&P soon became one of Washington DC's literary pillars.  Today, the store has a staff of more than 50 employees and occupies more than 8,000 square feet of sales space.  And they're always happy to help you find that Olivia Newton-John bio (or order it if it's out of stock).

Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade back in the store's early days
The store continues to hold fast to Cohen and Meade's original mission statement: “The bookstore will offer superior service and unusual book choices; it will serve as a gathering place for people interested in reading and discussing books.”

After Carla Cohen passed away in October 2010, Politics and Prose went through a period of transition when its future looked a little shaky.  Meade and Cohen had tried unsuccessfully to sell the store in the mid-2000s, but when Cohen became seriously ill, they decided to put up a For Sale sign once more.  The emotional reaction to this news was a testament to the loyalty of P&P friends and fans. Novelist and journalist Jim Lehrer said that "putting Politics and Prose up for sale is like putting the Washington Monument up for sale."  The monumental suspense ended in June 2011 when Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine purchased the store.  Graham was a longtime journalist with The Washington Post and his wife, Lissa, also worked as a Post journalist for a number of years, then served as a speechwriter to Hillary Clinton at both the White House and the State Department.  In their letter to customers, the new owners wrote:
A bookstore is a precious thing, ever more precious in this age of the Internet, when the space for healthy discourse and debate too often gives way to high-volume hyperbole. But it is our belief that Politics and Prose will become an even more essential part of our Washington landscape, building on its foundation not simply as a bookstore but as a community forum and marketplace of ideas....Our business is not just selling books but building community. A book can be bought anywhere; community can’t be.
In their response to the Bookstore of the Month questionnaire I sent to them, the P&P staff wrote about their special relationship with their loyal customers:
Like the children of Lake Wobegon, all of our customers are above average. The store's location on the border between Washington and Maryland presents us a very large circle from which to draw customers. We selected the neighborhood for its unusual demographic characteristics, and the store and customers are a perfect fit with one another. Our customers love our booksellers’ fierce intelligence and ability to identify a particular book they're searching for, sometimes going on as little information as “I heard about it on NPR sometime in the last two years.” We pride ourselves in going beyond the algorithm and calling on experiences and reading tastes from many years. Washington, DC is a very transitory city with people coming and going every few years, often without having the time or inclination to put down roots. But our customers do become rooted. We have customers who were the original charter members from nearly 30 years ago and others who still take the time to shop with us online if they’ve since moved out of state.
When I asked if the store had a mascot (secretly hoping they'd say they had an elephant and a donkey tied up in back), they gave this response: "One of our owner’s birthday is on Halloween, so although we don’t have a store mascot, several staff dress up in extravagant costumes for Halloween."  Like this fellow--who, I imagine, went around all day telling customers, "I have a splitting headache."

Every bookstore has its share of odd customer requests, but I think Politics and Prose takes the cake for the quirkiest: "One customer asked for a second bag when buying books.  This was odd because DC taxes bag usage in retail stores so many customers avoid plastic bags like the plague.  But this customer told us, 'I just love your bags.  I even buried my cat in one.'"  Ohhh-kayyy....

As you might imagine, celebrity sightings are common at P&P and the store has a robust author event schedule, hosting readings and/or signings every night and multiple times on the weekends.  In their questionnaire response, staff members cited last year's appearance by First Lady Michelle Obama as a memorable one.  "We also have quite a bit of luck.  We hosted George Saunders right after The New York Times heralded his book as the best of 2013.  The event, held last January, was standing room only–there were 400 people in the store."

A packed house for George Saunders
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
In an emotional moment, Rep. John Lewis reaches out to another participant
of the 1963 March on Washington during his book signing last September
Upcoming events this month include visits by authors Roddy Doyle, Carolyn Forche, B. J. Novak, Laura Lippman, Jerome Charyn, and Marissa Meyer.  The store will also host a Winter Beer Tasting, cleverly paired with the book Prohibition in Washington, DC: How Dry We Weren't by Garrett Peck.

Politics and Prose is the featured bookstore all this month at The Quivering Pen.  By clicking on the links to books mentioned in this month's blog posts, you'll be taken to the store's website where you can purchase the book (or, better yet, several books).  The Quivering Pen is dedicated to supporting independent bookstores.

No comments:

Post a Comment