What I’ve Learned: Politics & Prose’s Barbara Meade

The bookstore’s former co-owner on reading, why women make better bosses, and Jane Fonda’s dog.

By: John Wilwol

Barbara Meade and Carla Cohen turned Politics & Prose into a literary hub. “When we started, we were nobody,” Meade says. Photograph by Stephen Voss.

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.

When you put the store up for sale, you had something like 20 people who were interested.

Initially we had 50. We narrowed it down to about 20, then about a dozen. It was with those dozen that we started having face-to-face conversations. Carla’s husband, David, and I were very taken with Brad and Lissa. Initially just Brad expressed interest, but he brought Lissa along to their meeting.

I told them that there’s got to be a woman. There’s no way that a store that’s been under all-female ownership for some 27 years can go to male-only ownership. Lissa perked up, and by the time they made their offer, she was very much in.

Why was it important to you that the store still have a woman owner?

I think women do better in relationships with employees. Carla and I always had a close relationship with everybody who worked with us. At the same time, in all the years we were partners, Carla and I had never had a quarrel over money. I thought that in male partnerships there was a great deal of emphasis on how much each makes and how much profit there is—which I don’t think you find, necessarily, so often in women-owned companies.

Have you always been a reader?

I’ve always been a big, big reader. At the time I learned to read, we lived across from the Georgetown public library on R Street. This was 1940, 1941. The war was on, and you couldn’t get much gasoline, so there were hardly any cars on R Street. So at four years old, I could walk across the street myself to the Georgetown library. I spent a lot of time there.

Tell me about your earliest reading experiences. Did you have a favorite series?

The only series I ever got into was when I was around 13 and read every Perry Mason. When I was eight or nine, we moved to Bethesda, and I can remember belonging to a private lending library. You had to pay to rent books. And then, this was kind of silly, but from the time I went off to college, I was always a member of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

What did your parents do?

My mother was a stay-at-home mom until her last child went to college. Then she taught high-school history. When she was in her mid-fifties, she was appointed to the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, and that was a full-time job. She was always a big reader, as was my father, who was a lawyer in the Eisenhower administration as a special counsel to the President. He was in the White House for eight years.

Did you meet Eisenhower?

I did. I’ve met Truman, Eisenhower, Carter, Clinton, and Obama. The American Booksellers Association asked me two years ago if I could get their board into the Oval Office to give President Obama books for the White House library. I persisted and persisted, and finally I got a yes with only about 24 hours’ warning. Each of us gave Obama a book. I gave him the third volume of Edmund Morris’s biography of Teddy Roosevelt, and the minute I gave him the book he said, “You know, I’ve read the first two volumes of this and I just loved it.” He was obviously a tremendous reader.

Is there any author you feel Politics & Prose put on the map?

I think we were very instrumental in making Ian McEwan a big seller early on. Chris Matthews will sell his books anyway, but he has always loved to do his opening act here, and he says we’ve always been wonderful for his sales. Howard Norman, whose book The Bird Artist was nominated for a National Book Award, says he’s very indebted to us for the way that we promoted him.

Were there any books over the years that you were always excited to recommend to your customers?

Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. I always loved telling people about Penelope Lively’s The Photograph. Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love. Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. Nicholson Baker’s U and I. John Updike’s “Rabbit” series.

You once said, before he died, that Updike was your favorite living author. Do you have a favorite now?

I think Graham Swift is my favorite living fiction writer.

What was the last book you loved?

Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman.

Do you prefer fiction or nonfiction?

Nonfiction. I think it has to do with age. There’s a lot of fiction I just can’t relate to. I’ve been through my romantic twenties, my married-and-raising-children years, a divorce, and I have a hard time reliving those years in fiction.

I’ve become more old-fashioned—just give me a good story with lots of character depth. That’s why I like to go back and read Middlemarch occasionally. I also read a fair amount of poetry, but I spend most of my time reading history, biography, some natural science.

Any guilty reading pleasures?

I think I’m the only person who hasn’t read Fifty Shades of Grey.

Is there anything you’re embarrassed to tell people you haven’t read?

The more you read, the more you realize how much you haven’t read. I’ve never read David Foster Wallace or Thomas Pynchon. I felt bad that I hadn’t read William McPherson’s Testing the Current, which I’m reading now.

Washington is often called the most literate city in the US, yet there aren’t many bookstores here. Why is that?

Amazon is one reason. It’s just very, very difficult to compete. There are customers who buy books from Amazon and bring them to author signings.

Why do you allow that?

For goodwill.

In today’s publishing environment, would you open a bookstore again?

Well, I think bookstores have another generation of a good life. After that, I’m not so sure.

Let’s end with one more anecdote. Nothing odd has happened here over the years, has it?

One of the strangest requests I’ve had was to sit on a bench outside the Avalon Theatre to wait for Jane Fonda’s dog. Fonda had come by train from Philadelphia for an event we were holding at the Avalon for her autobiography, My Life So Far. But the train didn’t allow dogs, so she found someone to drive her dog to Washington. I collected the dog outside and took him back to the tiny office. Jane Fonda signed my copy of her book, “To Barbara, thanks for the nice intro.” But not “Thanks for receiving my dog.”

Also, during one of our events, a customer died. His daughter called the next day to say he would be happy to know he died at Politics & Prose.


This article appears in the April 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.