The Initial History
Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade opened a small store at 5010 Connecticut Avenue NW in the autumn of 1984, working by themselves during the day and with one part-time employee who helped at night. Before a year was up, there were two full-time employees. By 1988-89 the staff numbered half-a-dozen and the store was bursting. It moved across the street to 5015 Connecticut Avenue NW in the summer of 1989. The bookstore now occupies more than 9,000 square feet of sales space, and almost 16,000 feet of total business space, including offices and a coffeehouse called The Den. The staff exceeds 100 employees.
In 1999, Jewell Stoddard, a partner in the Cheshire Cat, a prominent children’s bookstore located about ten blocks up the street, decided to move in with Politics & Prose. It turned out to be a perfect match, and P&P’s children and teens department is now one of the great strengths of the Connecticut Avenue NW store.
Change of Ownership
Carla Cohen died in October 2010, and in June 2011, Politics and Prose was purchased by Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine. Brad was a longtime journalist with The Washington Post and author of two books. His wife, Lissa, also had worked as a Post journalist for a number of years, and then served as chief speechwriter and senior advisor to Hillary Clinton at the White House and the State Department. Click here to read a message from Brad and Lissa.
The store’s name was set at the start by Carla Cohen. She wanted something that evoked Washington but didn’t sound pretentious. The name Politics and Prose had some shortcomings in the beginning because it led a number of customers to think the store specialized in political books. But now P&P’s reputation as a place that carries a wide variety of literary offerings is well established.
P&P’s mission, as articulated initially by Carla and Barbara, has been this: “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
Even as P&P confronts a changing world of e-books and e-readers, it continues to enjoy rising revenues and solid profitability. One of its signature features is an extensive line-up of author talks—at least one nearly every night of the year and often several a day on Saturdays and Sundays, plus frequent events at various off-site venues. Publishers compete to place their authors at P&P, and authors like coming to the store, in large part because the audiences often are sizeable, informed, and keen to support genres from literary fiction and poetry to narrative non-fiction and topical journalism. “Like the children of Lake Wobegon,” Carla and Barbara used to say, “all of our customers are above average.”
P&P does more than just sell books, offering a range of programs. It sponsors dozens of classes on various literary topics and hosts 18 in-house book groups. It sponsors week-long trips to such countries as France, Italy, and Cuba, as well as shorter day visits to places closer to home. And its coffeehouse and wine bar, renovated in 2016 and dubbed The Den, has a reputation for serving some of the best coffee in Washington.
Still, the store’s greatest strength may be its staff, who are known for their knowledge of literature and their ability to help customers find just the right books. P&P even offers a concierge subscription service that will send customers a book each month they are sure to enjoy.
In 2015, P&P joined forces with Busboys and Poets and began managing the book sales at some Busboys and Poets locations and sponsoring author talks there. This innovative business arrangement has proven successful for both companies, uniting P&P’s bookselling skills with Busboys and Poets’ track record of operating multi-use, food-and-event gathering spaces. Both enterprises share a deep commitment to building community, providing quality customer service, and promoting public discussion of ideas, cultural issues, and current events.
Luck, Hard Work, and a Sense of Community
The success that P&P has had represents, in part at least, the luck of being in the right place at the right time. The company started when it was still possible for a bookstore to begin small and grow bigger. It was well on its way before the chains opened, and it has remained able to compete effectively even in the Internet age, seizing opportunities, increasing its visibility, expanding its business, and further deepening its roots in the community. Under the leadership of Brad and Lissa, the store has continued to imagine, innovate, and adapt while remaining true to the mission first established by Carla and Barbara. And the founders’ words still ring true: “We have built a community, and the community has built the store.”