CARLA COHEN, 1936-2010
Exuberant founder of Politics and Prose
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
When Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade opened a little Connecticut Avenue bookstore 26 years ago, they had two employees, a small inventory that skewed toward serious nonfiction and a name - Politics and Prose - that celebrated Washington's predilection for wonkery.
The store would go on to become an institution that defined Washington's literary scene. It built a reputation as one of the nation's most successful independent booksellers - a 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 founded Politics and Prose and was an exuberant force behind its evolution, 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.
The disclosure sent ripples throughout literary circles as readers and writers alike wondered whether anyone else could sustain a business that is as much a D.C. icon 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."
Politics and Prose was once part of a buzzing ecosystem of independent booksellers in the city, each with its own audience. But Dupont Circle's gay-oriented Lambda Rising closed last year, as did Vertigo Books in College Park. In 2008, Karibu Books, which catered to black readers, and Olsson's Books and Records, which billed itself as the city's oldest independent, went out of business.
The list goes on, leaving Politics and Prose as the region's last thriving holdout in a sea of Internet booksellers and big-box chains.
The store 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 mix of customers that is particular to Washington: 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 survive, the store has become a sort of progressive community center. It sponsors panel discussions and book clubs. A basement coffee shop serves lattes and hosts a regular open-mike session for local musicians.
"It's a place where books are not commodities - they're something else," said National Public Radio reporter Susan Stamberg. "You feel you're with like-minded people, people who share your passions and your interests."