Part I of our Bookstores in Focus series which highlights thriving, independent bookstores and asks one question: What keeps these stores vibrant amid an increasingly digital publishing world?
Washington, D.C. is a strange town. It's filled with an ecclectic mix of intellectuals, lobbyists, and young, energetic idealists seeking to change the world. And though this mix holds constant from year to year, its members are constantly changing; indeed, D.C. is one of the more itinerant cities in the US. For that reason, it's often difficult for D.C proprieters to build something that lasts - this isn't the case, however, with local bookseller Politics and Prose.
- Founded: 1988
- Size: 14,000 sq. feet
- Features: Cafe, nightly readings and discussions
- Ownership: Original ownership until 2011
- Key Changes: Merged with local children's bookstore in 1999
History and Changes
Politics & Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse first opened in 1984 after friends Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade decided to build a new type of store together. They vowed that "The bookstore will offer superior service and unusual book choices; it will serve as a gathering place for people interested in reading and discussing books." They started with a small space and two employees in the NW side of town on Connecticut Avenue. Within four years, they were already bursting at the seams and thus took a larger, 8,000 square foot space just across the street.
Over the years, the store turned in to an institution in D.C. It became the place where authors would stop to promote their books and do readings, where young people would visit after work with friends, and where generally everyone felt they could go to get away from the rush of the city. The owners further solidified the storie's place in the city by merging with a local children's bookstore, the Chesire Cat, in 1999, and adding a cafe to expand the space to 14,000 square feet.
In June of 2010, however, following the death of founder Carla Cohen, the bookstore went up for sale. Meade felt the sad business of running the store by herself after her friend's untimely passing would be too unpleasant, and current owners Lissa Muscatine and Bradley Graham stepped up to buy the store.
The process was lengthy and burdensome. "What was evident to us throughout the sale process was that Barbara and David were not selling just a business. They were selling a cultural institution that was part discussion forum, part neighborhood meeting ground, part event stage."
Why It Works
The store works, in our opinion, because the owners turned it in to (and maintained the feel of) a cultural center. As you can see from their calendar of events, classes, and reviews, everyone seems to agree. One notable Yelp reviewer put the appeal simply: "It looks like a bookstore. It SMELLS like a bookstore." Another shared another familiar sentiment, "They may be the best book store in America. Very thoughtful help finding books - even when you can't remember the title or the author! Event schedule is wonderful - and covers a wide range of issues. Not just politics."
The location is also unique, and the original owners picked it intentionally: "Like the children of Lake Wobegon, all of our customers are above average. The store’s location on the border between Washington and Maryland presents us a very large circle from which to draw customers. We selected the neighborhood for its unusual demographic characteristics, and the store and customers are a perfect fit with one another."
The new owners of Politics & Prose are Washington mainstays: Bradley Graham was a longtime journalist with The Washington Post and his wife Lissa served as a speechwriter for Hillary Clinton at both the White House and the State Department. You can read more about their plans for the store in their Post article, Why we bought Politics and Prose.
Be sure to check out Politics & Prose on your next trip to Washington and let us know what you think!
- 5015 Connecticut Ave NW