One of publishing’s great partnerships began in 1984 when an out-of-work Barbara Meade, back in Washington after a four-year stint in Portland, Oregon, responded to a classified ad in the Washington Post for a bookstore manager. “I just knew the phone would ring in the morning,” she says. “And it did!”
The next day, Meade met Carla Cohen, who was planning to open a small bookstore in Northwest DC called Politics & Prose. “I can’t remember ever being hired,” Meade says. “There was just an understanding from the beginning.”
Meade worked for about two years as manager before entering into a 50-percent partnership with Cohen. The two went on to establish Politics & Prose as perhaps the country’s finest independent bookstore and one of Washington’s most important cultural hubs. “It was a wonderful partnership,” Meade says. “It really did work very, very well.”
Cohen died in 2010, and Meade—along with Cohen’s husband of 52 years, David—sold the store almost a year later. Meade, who has four children and 11 grandchildren, stayed on as an adviser to new owners Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine until retiring this past December.
Meade, 77, began her career in books in 1976 at a shop in DC’s Foggy Bottom called Moonstone Book Cellar. As the only employee other than the owner, she learned how to “do it all” and opened her own store in Potomac, the Bookstall, in 1977. In 1980, after selling her share in the store to her partner, she followed a man she was in a relationship with to Portland.
In the beginning, Meade says, she and Cohen had to beg authors to read at Politics & Prose. “Caroline de Margerie was recently here for her new book, American Lady: The Life of Susan Mary Alsop, and I was trying to think why we hadn’t had Alsop in 1984 when she published The Congress Dances,” she says. “But I’m sure it’s because we just felt if we asked her to come she would’ve laughed us off the phone: ‘Who are you?’ ”
But that’s changed. Meade says the store rarely invites people to speak there anymore: “Authors come to us.”
Shortly after her retirement, as one of those writers began a Sunday reading just outside the office door, Meade talked about what she learned in 35 years of bookselling.
How did Politics & Prose become what it is?
When we started, we were nobody. The name, which Carla chose, was a real stumbling block. Politics & Prose just didn’t make much sense for a general bookstore. We wanted to have events, but because we were brand-new, talking an author into coming was something we had to work very, very hard at.
But you did get a few big names early on.
In the first year, we had Herblock and Izzy Stone. Then as we got more and more people, we got more and more known. Eventually, there was a tipping point where we didn’t have to go begging anymore. People were starting to come to us to beg. Now the store has four or five requests for every day and has to select one.
Have there been particularly good readings over the years?
There are so many. Certainly in the beginning, Herblock was fantastic. Katharine Graham was completely charming. Gloria Steinem was mesmerizing. But there have been at least a hundred over the years that I’ve been completely absorbed with. The biggest thrill I had was with Christopher Hitchens. When I introduced him to speak about his book God Is Not Great, I wanted to make it funny. He enjoyed it enough that he gave me a great big kiss.
I would imagine at the same time there have been a few clunkers. Any stand out?
I don’t think I could name names, but a disproportionate number have been professors. I can’t tell you exactly why.
The most difficult time I had was on the morning of the day I was scheduled to introduce Nora Ephron to talk about her book about aging, I Feel Bad About My Neck. I broke off about two-thirds of one of my two front teeth. I looked like an old crone and called my dentist in a panic, only to find out that he was out of town. His assistant kindly offered to temporarily glue it back on for me so I could look presentable introducing Nora.
What makes for a good reading?
The author has to have a gift for public speaking. I’ve always said there’s a contradiction in the two qualities you have to have as a writer. You have to have the ability to tolerate a lot of isolation while writing your book, but when your book is finished and you have to go out and promote it, you’ve got to be the most gregarious person there is.
Did you give authors tips before readings?
For nonfiction books, we ask them to talk about the book but not to read—if they read, it’s somewhat of a crowd killer.
They should talk informally, passionately, and not too long. I always told them, “After 25 minutes, you’re going to lose your audience and you’re also going to lose sales.” But they don’t believe it. Some of them will go on for 45 or 50 minutes. It’s just too long.
You’ve called Politics & Prose a “literary and cultural center.” But it’s also a business.
It’s a business but not a high-profit business. We’ve run it the way we have because we wanted it to become a literary and cultural center. Involved in that is carrying a wide range of literary titles that don’t have the turnover commercial titles do. So there’s a great deal of profit loss when you decide quality is more important than making money.
Right—the store doesn’t sell things like CliffsNotes. How did you curate the stock?
It just takes a mindset to steer clear of books that seem like the only reason they’re being published is to make a huge amount of money. In the beginning, for example, we wouldn’t carry Robert Ludlum. Now we’ll maybe carry one copy or something like that. We also have a lot of literary presses that big chains don’t, like Graywolf and Consortium. Algonquin is also a wonderful literary press.
Were you ever approached to turn Politics & Prose into a franchise?
We thought about it, but we just weren’t interested. We were approached many times to open a branch in Northern Virginia and Maryland. The closest we ever got was when we were approached by Reagan National Airport. We almost did that, but then we thought: It’s just a whole different business. And actually, no one who worked here was the least bit interested in working in a bookstore at an airport. Which I can understand.
What was so appealing about the airport?
I think just the volume. There were so many passengers coming through.