Bookish Doyennes Nurture D.C. Landmark

By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 28, 2009

Politics & Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse, in Northwest D.C. near the corner of Connecticut and Nebraska avenues, is part of the Washington landscape, just like The Palm or FedEx Field.

Almost every night, some author makes the pilgrimage there.

Bill Clinton packed the place with his modestly titled biography, "My Life." Comedian Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" promoted his narrowly focused "America: The Book." Billionaire J.K. Rowling of the Harry Potter franchise was there. Hardly a week goes by when a Washington Post journalist isn't reading from his or her book. Name a literary celebrity, and they've flogged their wares at Politics & Prose.

The place has its share of weirdoes.

Take "The Reader," a well-dressed man in his 40s who absorbs nonfiction for hours at a time but has never spent a cent. When The Reader is in residence, staffers gamely follow his subject that day and pass the word among themselves that "the reader is reading such and such.'

I love browsing bookstores and, like everything, am curious about their economics. P&P co-owners Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade got on the telephone with me and supplied an in-depth description of what they refer to as "our 20-year-old labor of love."

First, this question I posed to stock analyst William R. Armstrong: How does little P&P compete with the big-box stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders?

"If you predate the growth of the superstore and you've got an established presence in your market, and especially if you have some sort of specialty, you can compete with the big-boxes," said Armstrong, who works with C.L. King & Associates.

P&P, which began in 1989, grossed $6.8 million last year, compared with $6.2 million for the average Barnes & Noble.

"Our primary criteria is the books be thoughtful or stimulating," said Meade. "The criteria for chain stores appears to be entertaining or diverting."

Note to readers: no trashy romance novels sold here. The business section isn't the deepest I have ever seen. But they do boast the latest fiction from some publishing house that only produces half a dozen books a year. And if you want a book by a foreign policy wonk or health-care noggin, you can mine it at P&P.

"We don't have to carry anything that's just ordinary," said Cohen. "We don't have a romance section. No John Jakes."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company