A small paperback book entitled "Rotten Reviews" is well displayed at the counter of Carla Cohen's full service bookstore, Politics & Prose, in upper Northwest Washington. The little book contains contemporary reviews panning the likes of Mark Twain, William Shakespeare, William Faulkner and James Joyce.

"We give them as consolation to our authors who get what they regard as bad reviews," said Cohen's partner Barbara Meade. "It puts things into context for our authors who are suffering the immediacy of their rejection."

Even rejected authors are welcomed, however, at the three-year-old bookstore at 5010 Connecticut Ave. NW, which has become a salon for Washington writers.

The store was founded by former activist Cohen with just that in mind. After years as an advocate planner for others, Cohen devised a plan of her own, aimed at capturing the area's "exceptionally well-educated and affluent population with multiple interests and leisure time."

But of the hundred or so bookstores in the Washington area, most are cut-rate and chain owned. Clearly, Cohen needed something special to survive. "The store will specialize in Washington writers," said Cohen's plan. "Politics & Prose will become known as the store which carries Washington authors . . . . "

And celebrates them. In its short life-span, the store has become the book signing party store of choice for many of Washington's book-writing media elite -- from humorist poet-philosopher Judith Viorst to conservative columnist George Will to a host of Washington Post authors, including this writer, and others.

"It's kind of a cozy place," said food writer and mother Joan Nathan, whose last book party there was for her "Children's Jewish Holiday Kitchen."

"We had a huge amount of dough and all these kids in there making challah," she said.

Besides the parties launching specific titles, other social events include an annual gathering of baseball fans to start the spring season with hot dogs, pop and popular baseball books, and a monthly book club whose members gather to discuss a book-of-the-month, which the store sells to them at a discount.

The club has spawned at least one romance -- a man and a woman recently moved in together -- and almost been through the birth of a baby, Corey Critchell, 7-month-old child of Penny Critchell, who said she attended a book club meeting at the store the night before her son's cesarean birth "to keep myself occupied."

"You feel like it's a family," said Cohen, whose daughter Eve has worked at the store and whose husky/German shepherd "Judah Macabee" is a store regular.

"It's my second home," said Lynne Horning, who had come in search of a book someone had recommended "by a Chinese man about the economy." Asked Meade, "You don't mean 'The Great Depression of 1990,' which is by an Indian?" Horning said. "That could be it. I think that must be the right book."

Sometimes, from the close circle of authors, friends and neighbors who are the core constituency of Politics & Prose, you'd hardly know it was a business. But Cohen's connections are also aimed at making a profit -- eventually.

Cohen broadened her local and national contacts through her years with the Washington Planning & Housing Association, and on Capitol Hill, in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and, finally, in a support group she ran for unemployed liberal bureaucrats adrift in the Reagan era.

For the new venture, she and her husband, former Common Cause president David Cohen, refinanced their house. Further fortified by a four-day book-selling seminar in Chicago, she opened for business in September 1984.

"What has happened," said Milton Viorst, Judith Viorst's husband and the author of "Sands of Sorrow: Israel's Journey from Independence to Uncertainty," "is that Carla has just been reaching out to this nice little community in the city and brought us together, and everybody thinks of it now as the family bookstore."

As Washington has evolved from a city not known for its literary achievements when Viorst arrived here in 1957, to one with a widening circle of successful writers, he said, "Carla has wisely tapped into that."

One measure of the store's success is its growing mailing list, now numbering 6,000 names of customers who have signed the guest book at the front counter. To the signers goes a chatty monthly newsletter containing a calender of events and capsule book reviews largely written and edited by Cohen.

Her recommendations, customers say, are often persuasive. "Books which combine good writing and politics make great books," she wrote in a recent issue. "That's why we try to stock all of Edmund Wilson's books; he wrote with enormous zest and clarity about his own world and about the past."

For browsers, there are comfortable chairs for reading, free coffee and a restroom with dust jackets instead of graffiti adorning the walls.

The store has established special sections for audiences targeted in Cohen's preliminary marketing plan: lawyers, journalists, mental health professionals and patients who flock to Connecticut Avenue, where so many psychiatrists have offices that Cohen calls it "Shrink Row."

"We have someone who counsels infertile couples. We try to stock books {she recommends} for her clients," said Cohen. In response to a request from the Washington Home, which recently started a support group for relatives and friends of the dying, the store also has a "loss and mourning" section.

The media section does well, she said. At the party for the book by The Washington Post's David Broder, "Behind the Front Page," 138 copies were sold -- a store record.

"We have a lot of reporters who buy books here," said Cohen. "They like to read about their profession. Lawyers won't read any books about their profession. Architects are avid collectors of books about architecture."

Knowing her customers, their likes and dislikes, and her own, is what distinguishes Politics & Prose from the chain stores, Cohen said.

"Chains limit their stocking to brand name merchandise, the Bill Cosbys, the James Micheners," said Jim Adler, a Bethesda publisher. "Some of it's excellent merchandise, but a book written by somebody intelligent with something to say to a few thousand people has difficulty getting exposure."

For example, Adler said, the chains "didn't touch" "The Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew," a book his firm published about a Jewish Italian fascist family. But Cohen was taken with it and sold 50 copies, one-third of the total sold in the Washington area, "an amazing performance for a small store."

Cohen also boosted "Common Ground," a book about school desegregation in Boston by New York journalist J. Anthony Lukas. At her urging, he signed copies at the store when, he said, "the book had really not excited many others."

A year later, after the book had won recognition, sold well and been reissued in paperback, Cohen invited Lukas back for a second signing.

Before the first book party, Lukas recalled, "We had never met. It seems to have been just her enthusiasm for the book. It was very heartening to me."