A good independent bookstore tends to inspire cultlike devotion, have a cozy rather than cavernous atmosphere, and be a place where the customers know the staff and the staff knows the customers. The selection is high-minded, as if to say, You only have a limited amount of free time, why waste it on trash?
That formula, however noble, hasn't necessarily been a winning one in the 1990s, so the ranks of independent booksellers nationwide have dropped at least by half. Devoted patrons in the area recently received more somber news with the revelation that the Cheshire Cat in Chevy Chase, one of the first and most prominent children's bookstores in the country, would close at the end of the month.
"Isn't it terrible?" says Pam Gardner, who teaches seventh-grade English at Norwood School in Bethesda. "It's as if they're tearing down the Washington Monument."
"I have seen people, adults, stand outside the store literally wiping tears from their eyes before they go in," says novelist Howard Norman, who lives a few blocks away. "People feel heartbroken."
Not all the news about the independents is grim, however. This week came the official announcement that Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade of Politics & Prose had been chosen Publishers Weekly's Bookseller of the Year.
The award is open to all booksellers, not just independents, although in the seven years it has been given, only independents have won. No money comes with the prize. "They get a nice handshake and a delightful plaque and a lunch for about 100 or 150 people" at the bookseller's convention later this month, says John Mutter, executive editor/book-selling of Publishers Weekly.
The bad news and the good are linked: Jewell Stoddard, who runs Cheshire Cat, is taking her expertise and staff down Connecticut Avenue to Politics & Prose. Her move will strengthen P&P in the one subject area the owners feel it is somewhat weak.
"When we began," says Cohen, "we envisioned Politics & Prose as a grown-up version of the Cheshire Cat. So it's thrilling that Jewell is going to join Barbara and me."
The 65-year-old Stoddard, it seems, isn't tired of book-selling, merely of running a bookshop: "I won't have to worry about the day-to-day operation of the store -- everything from sweeping the front walk to paying the bills to tracking down lost shipments. The perpetual management is distracting from what we really love to do: working with teachers and parents and librarians, trying to decide what the right books are for the store."
Its admirers say Cheshire Cat did that exceptionally well. Says Gardner: "It was almost like going to the doctor. They could prescribe books. It's not an attitude you get anywhere else. I spent hours in there, leafing through books, and I would hear people come in and go up to the owners and say, My aunt's dying of cancer, or I'm getting a divorce, or My child was diagnosed with a terrible illness, or We found out our baby has Down syndrome, and being met with such warmth, such encouragement, such tact, and being led to the right book."
Agrees another longtime customer, real estate agent Kitty Bayh: "If you described your child, they knew what would tickle his fancy or ignite his imagination."
Such confidence came only gradually. "When we first opened, we were very timid about telling customers we disagreed with reviews," says Stoddard. "Once we began to feel brave enough to do that, our customers really appreciated it. So it wasn't just what was here, but what wasn't here."
The four original partners -- Stoddard, Greenie Neuburg, Pam Sacks and Charlotte Berman -- met while colleagues at Green Acres Elementary School in Rockville. "We tried to get books but we could only buy them by special order," remembers Stoddard. "We couldn't find them for our kids, either. A few stores had one small wall of children's books, and that was it."
It was only 22 years ago, but the concept of a children's bookstore was an alien one. "There was a fair amount of skepticism," says Sacks. Adds Stoddard: "We talked to the American Booksellers Association, and they said it couldn't be done because there wasn't enough demand."
Now, of course, everyone sells children's books. When people heard that Cheshire Cat was closing, they thought it might be because of competitive pressures. It was the new Barnes & Noble in Bethesda or the new Borders over on Wisconsin Avenue. It was the oh-so-convenient Amazon.com. It was the toy stores that sell books as a sideline. It was all of the above.
In truth, it was none of the above. "I don't feel there needs to be a bad guy," says Stoddard. "But that's what people like to believe."
Selling out was not an option. "It's a very personal creation, we live very close to it, and if someone bought it and changed it, it would be very painful," the bookseller says.
And, quite likely, it wouldn't be as successful. Independent bookstores tends to be the creation of one or two determined individuals, and the operation tends to last as long as their energy does.
P&P's Cohen began as a city planner, but didn't like the moral ambiguity. "If I helped one set of people in the urban area, I was probably hurting another set. You provide low-income housing, it's removing property from the tax base that the city desperately needs. You bring in a new office building and tear down a beautiful old building, you're contributing to the tax base but affecting the aesthetics of the city. There are all kinds of trade-offs."
After seeing a film about violinist Isaac Stern, "From Mao to Mozart," Cohen told her husband, "If I could only be like Isaac Stern and do something in my life that would bring nothing but pleasure to other people. And that's how I feel about what I do now."
When she decided to open a store, the first thing she did was advertise for a manager, who turned out to be Meade, now a full partner.
"Two middle-aged women who didn't know each other formed a partnership and were able to keep it together, in a climate where the statistics are something like 84 percent of partnerships break up," says Meade. "It's much worse than marriage."
Nominations for the Publishers Weekly bookseller award are made by people in the publishing business. The final winner is selected by an independent jury based on material submitted by the stores themselves.
The primary benefit of the award is promotional, beginning with a five-page article in the current issue of Publishers Weekly that details the history of the store since its founding in 1984 as a 1,400-square-foot shop selling 5,000 titles to the current 6,000 square feet and 60,000 titles.
Among the impressive elements of Politics & Prose, the article says, are the 200 reading groups it services; an events program that brings in a writer almost every night; a Web site that sells books "and is updated almost hourly"; e-mail mailing lists; "a lively monthly newsletter"; a connection with C-Span, which often films store events; its coffee shop; and a newly created advisory board.
"I think this award is a validation that, in this climate so filled with fear that independents can't survive and that retailing will be totally taken over by Internet commerce, it's still possible to run an excellent bookstore which is financially successful," says Meade. "Independent book-selling is not dead yet. The obituaries are premature."
Except, alas, for Cheshire Cat, which is in the process of imitating its namesake. The shelves are thinning out, the book groups are winding up, and the staff is moving on. Soon the store will be a shell, nothing left but the smiles of memories.
CAPTION: Cheshire Cat visitors Sophia Whitman Sandmeyer, 3, and Margaret Kimble need a new bookstore.
CAPTION: Jewell Stoddard on closing the Cheshire Cat: "If someone bought it and changed it, it would be very painful."