With sale of D.C.'s Politics and Prose, a bookstore's legacy is up for grabs

By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 2010; B01

Politics and Prose, the iconic independent bookstore on Connecticut Avenue NW that has held on against withering competition from Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com and Costco, is announcing what customers and employees have long feared: The place is for sale.

The store's owners, Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade, both 74 and so in synch they often wear the same colors without planning to, said they are simply too tired to keep steering Washington's most prominent non-chain bookstore -- a premier stop on top-shelf author tours and a frequent setting for book talks on C-SPAN -- through the uncertainty of an industry threatened by e-books. Cohen is also seriously ill.

"It's time for us to stop and let somebody else take over for the future," Meade said in the 26-year-old store's cramped office. Cohen, eyes reddening, said, "I just don't have the energy like I used to."

Meade and Cohen said that their 60 employees are nervous but that the sale should not be perceived as the store's final chapter. Despite doom and gloom in the industry, Meade said, "there are no financial problems here. We make a good profit." Two years ago, Politics and Prose sold 141,000 hardcover books for $3 million in sales, the owners said. This year: 156,000 hardcovers for $3.3 million.

Still, Meade and Cohen acknowledged uncertainty about the industry. Asked what she would change about it, Meade said, "Knowing what the future is."

Authors, book industry insiders and longtime customers reacted with concern to news of the sale. One tweet read: "Oh no. Dismay." Novelist and journalist Jim Lehrer, who has often promoted his books at the store, said that "putting Politics and Prose up for sale is like putting the Washington Monument up for sale."

Book sales are down nationwide, falling nearly 2 percent from 2008 to last year, according to the Association of American Publishers, although sales of e-books shot up 177 percent on smaller volume. Independent stores have been hit especially hard, and nationally prominent shops have closed, including Olsson's Books and Records in Washington, Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan and A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco.

With consumers adopting iPads and Kindles to download books in seconds, analysts suggest that the future for bricks-and-mortar bookstores is grim. Other industry professionals predict that stores might evolve into showrooms where books might be bought off the shelves, downloaded at the register or printed on in-house presses that churn out high-quality paperbacks in minutes from a nearly infinite inventory.

"I think the future is promising for booksellers, if they would only see what the future is," said Jason Epstein, a longtime publishing executive and co-founder of On Demand Books, which has placed book printers in independent stores across the country.

Michael Norris, an industry analyst for Simba Information, said that independents might survive because of their ties to communities. "I think they will survive because it's Politics and Prose," Norris said. "They have a brand, and that brand means something . . . to a lot of people."

Robert Barnett, a District lawyer who represents many big-name authors, took solace in the store's profitability. "That raises the possibility of finding a like-minded buyer," he said. "Independent bookstores have always been the backbone of bookselling."

Politics and Prose opened in 1984 across from its current location in a small retail strip among apartment buildings in the Forest Hills neighborhood. Cohen, a former community organizer, thought there would be a market for books outside downtown Washington, and she found Meade through a classified ad.

Meade worried that the shop's name wouldn't work -- too limiting and hard to understand. Also, she thought people were starting to hate politics. At first, she was right. Some heard "prose" and thought "pros." Salespeople returned calls seeking "Paula Prose." Publishing houses balked at sending authors to a quiet section of town, so the store relied on a stream of Washington journalists to talk about their books.

But Politics and Prose built a loyal following, adding a children's section, basement cafe and popular membership program, and it became a coveted stop on book tours. It has hosted ex-presidents and Nobel laureates but still makes room for little-known local authors. This month, it is hosting, among others, Christopher Hitchens, Bret Easton Ellis and Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree.

"We're not just looking for a buyer," Meade said. "It's about someone to continue our legacy."

The owners have turned down offers in recent years, including an aborted effort to give local businessman Danny Gainsburg a quiet tryout as their successor. "They had their chance," he said. "They could have probably gotten a lot more money then."

Cohen and Meade are looking for someone to guide them through the sale. "This is all very difficult," Meade said.

Despite the industry's troubles, several well-known independent stores have attracted buyers, including the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass. Bostonians winced when the store, not affiliated with the university, was put up for sale in 2008. Jeffrey Mayersohn and his wife, Linda Seamonson, both longtime customers, bought it, and they said sales have improved.

Mayersohn, a retired tech company executive, said he has added new ways of selling books, including printing about 1,000 on-demand titles a month, delivering books by bicycle-propelled trucks and opening the store's enormous warehouse for sales.

"I believe all these devices are here with us to stay," Mayersohn said. "But I also believe physical books will coexist with digital books for a very long time."

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