The Story of Politics & Prose
The Initial History
Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade began in a small store at 5010 Connecticut in the autumn of 1984, by themselves and a part-time employee who worked at night. Before a year was up, there were two full-time employees. By 1988-89 there were a half-dozen and the store was bursting. We moved across the street to 5015 in the summer of 1989. We now occupy more than 8,000 square feet of sales space, and almost 14,000 feet of total business space, including offices and café. We have a staff of more than 50 employees.
Click here to watch a video of Barbara and Carla conversing with E.J.Dionne about the history of the store. It was filmed during the 25th anniversary celebration.
In 1999, Jewell Stoddard, a partner in the Cheshire Cat, the preeminent children’s bookstore in the United States, decided to move in with Politics and Prose. Since the Cheshire Cat, 10 blocks up the street, was an inspiration for our “grown up” store, it was a perfect match, and Politics & Prose Children’s Department is now larger and sells more children’s books than Cheshire Cat did.
Change of Ownership
Carla Cohen died in October 2010, and in June 2011, Politics & Prose was purchased by Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine. Brad was a longtime journalist with The Washington Post. His wife, Lissa, also worked as a Post journalist for a number of years, and then served as a speechwriter to Hillary Clinton at both the White House and the State Department. Click here to read a message from Brad and Lissa.
The name was set when there was only Carla Cohen figuring out a niche for a new bookstore in Washington. She wanted a Washington-sounding name that wasn't pretentious. The P&P name worked against Carla and Barbara in the beginning, since customers thought the store specialized—that it didn’t include cooking and children, poetry and travel. Now—well, it’s just our name.
Here’s the goal as stated years ago by Carla and Barbara: “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.”
Today at Politics & Prose
Our staff loves books and enjoys helping customers find books they will enjoy reading. We see the store as a fun place to be, to shop, and to work in. We chat with customers. We urge them to sit down and look at books before they make a decision. We tell them what we know. We go the extra mile in trying to locate a book for a customer. We have events for play as well as to learn. We make it easy for customers, trying to move them through the line as fast as possible.
We are selective about the books that we order, offering what is important to our customers and what is important to us. We sell books about the nation and the world, about people’s lives and their ideas, and we love fiction. Our staff tries to read as much as we can so that we can recommend new books. It is the enthusiasm and commitment of the staff that make the store unique.
Our author talks and our publications are integral to everything that we do. We want to facilitate the relationship between books and authors and readers. Authors enjoy coming to P&P because the staff treats them with respect and the customers are exceptionally well informed. It’s a great chance for authors, who work in solitude on their books, to meet readers. Our customers enjoy the author talks and the constant activity of the store. It’s a lively atmosphere.
We host authors every night and often twice on weekend days. Publishers compete to place their authors at Politics and Prose because we do our homework and know the book when we introduce and because we have a great audience.
We host many book groups, some run by staff, some run by interested customers. In addition, we provide books for about 75 book groups that order their books for discussion through the store. We also have classes on literature and psychology that meet at the store and serve store 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.
Luck and Hard Work
The success that Politics and Prose has had represents the luck of being in the right place at the right time. We opened when it was still possible for a store to start small and grow bigger. We grew bigger before the chains opened. We seized every opportunity to increase our visibility and expand our business. We have tried strategies that didn’t work and we have given them up. We have been flexible and open to change, at the same time as adhering to our goals.
We will look for new ways to make books a popular entertainment to compete with other leisure activities. We will continue to explore links between books and travel and the arts, as well as books that help us understand ourselves and our world. We will be planning trips, meals together, movies, music, and other activities that enrich our lives.
We have built a community and the community has built the store.