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Carla Cohen dies; co-founder of D.C. bookstore Politics and Prose

The iconic independent retailer on Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington's most prominent non-chain bookstore, has become too much for its 74-year-old owners.

It was Ronald Reagan who provided the initial inspiration for Politics and Prose, albeit in a roundabout way.

When he won the 1980 presidential election, Mrs. Cohen left her Carter administration job in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She spent three years unemployed, a period that ended when she hatched a plan.

"I wanted to open the sort of bookstore in which I liked to spend time," she wrote in 1994. "If people like to shop at interesting small stores for clothing and household goods, wouldn't they also prefer a charming bookstore?"

Mrs. Cohen was undeterred by the fact that independent booksellers - even charming ones - were already beginning to falter under pressure from discount chains.

She found Meade through a classified advertisement seeking a store manager. Like Mrs. Cohen, Meade was an inveterate reader and a mother approaching 50. Unlike Mrs. Cohen, Meade had owned a bookstore previously and knew how to run a business. Before long, the two became full partners.

By 1989, the shop had outgrown its original storefront and moved to a larger space across the street. Mrs. Cohen and Meade enlisted a police officer to stop traffic as a small army of neighbors shlepped 15,000 books from one side of Connecticut Avenue to the other.

In 1999, Politics and Prose merged with a nearby children's bookstore. Including the coffee shop, the store now encompasses 13,000 square feet - fivefold its original size. There are more than 50 employees and upward of 35 author events each month.

The co-owners were a team of opposites. Meade was the punctual, reserved half of their partnership; Mrs. Cohen was habitually late and more effusive. A staff member once likened them to a cat and a dog. "I, the cat, walk unobtrusively into a room and sit quietly on the periphery intently watching everything that is going on," Meade once wrote. "Carla, the dog, joyfully bounds in and jumps up on everyone."

Mrs. Cohen was a blunt critic whose reviews appeared in the store newsletter and occasionally at the cash register, where she was known to dismiss a customer's selection and suggest another. She never felt lukewarm about a book, and when she found one she liked - which was often - she was, Meade said, "completely nonstoppable about communicating her enthusiasm."

Mrs. Cohen was just as straightforward about books she didn't like. When she refused a request from the conservative journalist Matthew Drudge to speak at the store, she dismissed the idea that her decision had anything to do with politics.


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