In the Beginning
Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade opened a small store named Politics and Prose at 5010 Connecticut Avenue NW in the autumn of 1984. Initially the store staff consisted of just two employees, Carla and Barbara, plus a part-time bookseller in the evening. Before a year was up, there were two additional full-time employees. Within five years, there were a half-dozen employees, and the store was bursting. In the summer of 1989, P&P moved across the street, assisted by customers who carried books to 5015 Connecticut Avenue NW, a space twice as large. The bookstore now occupies more than 9,000 square feet of sales space, and almost 16,000 square feet of total business space, including offices and a coffeehouse called The Den. Two branch locations also exist at The Wharf and Union Market. P&P’s staff exceeds 100 employees.
An Expanded Children’s Section
Before Politics and Prose opened for business, the Cheshire Cat, a prominent children’s bookstore also on Connecticut Avenue NW about eight blocks north, had been selling books for more than two decades. The store had been founded and operated by four women, but one had moved away and two others had retired, leaving Jewell Stoddard as the sole remaining owner. When the lease was up, the landlord presented Jewell a ten-year option to renew but with a large increase in rent. Rather than sign, Jewell decided to close the store. Reading in the Washington Post about the Cheshire Cat’s closing, Carla and Barbara called Jewell to ask her to come to work at Politics and Prose as manager of the children’s department. Jewell accepted, and she and two of her employees immediately started at Politics and Prose, which soon led to a doubling of sales in the children’s department.
Change of Ownership
When they approached their mid-seventies, Barbara and Carla began thinking about selling Politics and Prose and retiring. Carla passed away in October 2010. After interviewing many candidates, Barbara and Carla’s widowed husband, David Cohen, selected Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine to be the new owners of Politics and Prose. 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, then served as chief speechwriter and senior advisor to Hillary Clinton at the White House and 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 by Brad and Lissa, is this: “Politics and Prose is a DC-based business devoted to cultivating community and strengthening the common good through books, programs, and a respectful exchange of ideas. We’re committed to exceptional customer service and to the values of independence, inclusion, and diversity.”
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 proved 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. This partnership ended amicably in 2017, with the lessons learned paving the way for P&P to open new locations in the D.C. area.
On October 12, 2017, we opened a second branch at The Wharf, a major new waterfront development in South West Washington, and on June 18, 2018, we added a third branch at Union Market in North East Washington.
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.”