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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's not a question of left or right, conservative or liberal. It's a question of sleaze versus careful, thoughtful reporting," Mrs. Cohen told The Washington Post in 2000. "I think he's a rumormonger and a troublemaker, and I think he's more interested in self-promotion than in journalism."

The store's impending sale has sent ripples throughout literary circles in Washington and elsewhere as readers and writers alike wondered how anyone else will sustain a business that has become as much a Washington cultural institution as a place to buy a book.

"Whenever an institution having to do with the printed word ... is put on the auction block, there's always the fear that it is about to become a memory," New Yorker political writer Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in June. "I pray this will not be the case with Politics & Prose, an outpost of intellectual and literary vitality that the nation's capital can ill afford to lose."

Carla Furstenberg was born in Baltimore on April 11, 1936, the first of six children in a family with a tradition of liberal politics and civil-liberties activism. She escaped what her brother Mark called "the inevitable chaos of a robustly noisy Jewish family" by immersing herself in books.

She graduated in 1958 from Ohio's Antioch College. That same year, she married David Cohen, whom she had met in a student branch of the left-leaning group Americans for Democratic Action.

In addition to her husband of 52 years, survivors include two children, Aaron Cohen of New York and Eve Cohen of San Francisco; her 100-year-old mother, Edith Furstenberg of Baltimore; three brothers, Frank Furstenberg of Philadelphia, Michael Furstenberg of Boston and Mark Furstenberg of Washington, a baker who founded two District businesses, Marvelous Market and BreadLine; two sisters, Anne Furstenberg and Ellen Furstenberg, both of Philadelphia; and two grandchildren.

Mrs. Cohen received a master's degree in city planning from the University of Pennsylvania, where she joined a wave of thinkers who rebelled against top-down planning, believing instead that communities should decide for themselves how to grow.

She worked for citizens' housing organization in Philadelphia before moving to Washington in 1963. In the District, she worked for the Washington Planning and Housing Association as well as for the congressional subcommittee on the city, chaired by Rep. Henry Reuss (D-Wis.).

In the late 1970s, she began working for HUD assistant secretary Robert Embry Jr. She was known to spend her lunch hour at a L'Enfant Plaza bookstore, where she had early fantasies about opening her own shop.

After losing the HUD job in 1981, Mrs. Cohen founded a support group of fellow work-seekers. Its members egged her on as she decided to leave her urban planning career behind and open a spunky challenger to Crown Books, the discount chain that then dominated the Washington bookselling market.

For seed money, the Cohens mortgaged their house and borrowed money from friends and family. Politics and Prose opened in the fall of 1984; those early loans have long since been repaid, and Mrs. Cohen and Meade have received multiple awards for their work, including the 2010 Legacy Award of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association.

During Mrs. Cohen's period of unemployment during the early 1980s, she watched a movie about the violinist Isaac Stern. Afterward, she turned to her husband, inspired. She recalled that moment in an interview with The Post in 1999, when Politics and Prose was recognized by Publishers Weekly as bookseller of the year.

"If I could only be like Isaac Stern and do something in my life that would bring nothing but pleasure to other people," she remembered saying. "And that's how I feel about what I do now."


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