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.
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.

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