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

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff writer
Monday, October 11, 2010; 7:41 PM

When Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade opened a little Connecticut Avenue bookstore 26 years ago, they had two full-time employees, a small inventory that skewed toward serious nonfiction and a name - Politics and Prose - that celebrated Washington's predilection for wonkery.

Against all odds, the store went on to build a reputation as one of the nation's most renowned and successful independent booksellers - a buzzing community hub where readers gather each evening to hear talks by top-shelf authors, and where browsing shoppers are more likely to stumble across an obscure university press title than anything by Danielle Steel.

Mrs. Cohen, who was an exuberant force behind the evolution of Politics and Prose from a simple storefront into an institution that defined Washington's literary scene, died Oct. 11 at her home in Washington. She was 74 and had a rare cancer of the bile ducts.

News of her ill health reached customers in June, when Mrs. Cohen and Meade announced they were putting the store up for sale.

Politics and Prose distinguished itself as the purveyor of public affairs books, literary nonfiction and other genres not known for impressive sales figures. The collection has been embraced by a particularly Washington mix of customers: journalists, think-tankers and other book-hungry types drawn by the intersection of literature and big ideas.

"We don't have to carry anything that's just ordinary," said Mrs. Cohen, who often worked the phones and the cash register to keep tabs on what people were asking for. "We don't have a romance section."

In an effort to remain afloat in a sea of Internet booksellers and big-box chains, the store has also become a sort of progressive community center. A basement coffee shop serves steaming lattes and hosts a regular open-mike session for local musicians. The store sponsors panel discussions and more than 100 book clubs.

"It's a place where books are not commodities - they're something else," said longtime Washington reporter Susan Stamberg. "You feel you're with like-minded people, people who share your passions and your interests."

Perhaps most of all, the store has become known for its steady stream of author talks, which has given scads of local writers - Seymour Hersh, Judith Viorst and Jim Lehrer, among dozens more - a platform unlike any other to air their ideas and promote their books.

As the talks gained a reputation for attracting crowds of enthusiastic readers, Mrs. Cohen and Meade became known as literary tastemakers whose reach extended past the leafy streets of upper Northwest to New York publishing houses and beyond. Politics and Prose is now a crucial stop for up-and-coming and established authors seeking favor with (and a sales bump from) its educated clientele.

Literary luminaries John Updike and Alice Walker have spoken at the store, as have investigative reporter David Halberstam, former president Bill Clinton and photographer Annie Leibovitz.

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.

"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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