Barbara Meade retires from Politics and Prose, reflects on a life in books
After 35 years in the book business — more than 25 of them spent running Politics and Prose Bookstore with the late Carla Cohen — Barbara Meade recently became a book customer. Cohen and Meade built the Northwest Washington shop into one of the world’s great independent bookstores. After the store was sold to Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine in 2011 , Meade stayed on as an adviser. But this month, she announced that she had hung up her book bag and retired.
What will you not miss about the book business?
I’m not going to miss a lot of books that over the years both Carla and I felt should have never been published. There are a lot of books out there that there is no particular reason on Earth why money should have been spent on them. They have contributed absolutely nothing to our culture, to the publishing world, and are not that enjoyable to read.
Do you want to name names?
I’m not going to name names.
What was the toughest part of the business in the early days?
To make ourselves known. We were lucky to have Washington Post reporters appearing at the store early on. Haynes Johnson came. Herb Block — we had him quite early. It was very helpful to get people who had big names. That helped establish us. We were asking, cajoling — not bribing, but almost — authors to come to the store to speak. At some point, the scales tipped: We didn’t have to ask; we were asked.
Bookselling is a very personal business. When a shopper asks you for a book you personally loved, what does that feel like?
I always feel an immediate response to the customer, an affinity. I tell them, “You’re gonna love that book.”
Are you looking forward to being a book customer?
A book customer? [Laughs.] I enjoy being able to sit down and read a chapter of a book, see whether I’m interested in buying it or not. I’m learning a lot about what it feels like to be a customer. It feels — I’m trying to think of the right word — overwhelming, in the sense that there are so many to look at, so much that is new all the time. When you have a regular schedule, you don’t have to deal with such an onslaught of new books. You can absorb them gradually.
You’ve had a life that people dream about while stuck in traffic headed to the Pentagon. Will you write a memoir?
A number of people have suggested that. I just don’t think I could do it. I don’t think I could write a book that would be as interesting to read as my life has been selling books. It’s not only selling books, but it’s the education you get while you are selling books — the number of books that I read about subjects that I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near but that I had to read because the author was coming or we needed to promote a science book. The amount that I have learned over the years is more than anything I could have learned in college.
So what will you miss after all these years?
What I miss already is the books. When you’re immersed in a bookstore, at some point you feel, “Don’t show me another book.” It’s just too much to absorb. Right now I feel, “Show me every book that you have.” Every book looks good.
Rosenwald is a Washington Post staff writer and the editor of “The Silent Season of a Hero: The Sports Writing of Gay Talese.”