News & Politics

Washingtonian Favorites: Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade

This week, we chatted with the two women behind Politics and Prose, the local independent bookstore.

Photograph by Chris Leaman.

The closing of Olsson’s Books & Records at the end of September was a sad but hardly shocking turn of events—the local chain’s fate was the latest example of an all-too-familiar narrative: the death of the independent, small shop.

Amid all this gloom and doom, however, there are still two beacons of hope for Washingtonians who enjoy cozying up with a good book: Kramerbooks and Politics and Prose. The latter, particularly, has become the epicenter for the capital region’s literati—a must-stop destination for any author seeking exposure and a bump in book sales.
First Daughter Jenna Bush stopped by when promoting her book Ana’s Story, and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors such as Thomas Friedman, Jhumpa Lahiri, Art Spiegelman, and Junot Díaz have also read at the store.

“I regret that we were unable to work out dates with then-rising star Senator Barack Obama for The Audacity of Hope,” says store co-owner Carla Cohen. “I fell in love with him when I read Dreams From My Father.”

Cohen, who had been working as an advocate planner, decided to move into the private sector after Ronald Reagan’s election. With the help of Barbara Meade, whom she found through an advertisement for a manager in the Washington Post, she opened Politics and Prose on the third week of September in 1984.

Author readings, which have become the store’s defining characteristic, started almost immediately after opening.

“We had Myra McPherson for her book on the Vietnam veterans and Herblock for several of his collections,” says Cohen. “We also invited Edmund Morris to speak on the art of biography after he had written about Teddy Roosevelt and been selected by Ronald Reagan [to be his official biographer].”

Politician Mo Udall, journalist J. Anthony Lukas and sportswriter John Feinstein—who was just about to become known for his book on Bobby Knight—were other early visitors at the store. Currently, an average of 35 readings are held each month.

At the time it opened, the Politics and Prose staff included Cohen, Meade, and one other person who worked in the evenings. These days, the head count is well over 50. The sizable increase in help, however, has not made a difference in the time these two women spend at the store. You can find them there five days a week, 46 weeks of the year.

Perhaps it’s this dedication and love that has helped Politics and Prose remain viable as a business for so long. This year, the store, which carries around 60,000 books in stock (“not including bargain books,” Cohen points out), celebrates its 25th anniversary. We spoke to Cohen and Meade about the past, present, and future of the store and just what President-elect Obama should be reading.

Names: Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade
Ages: 72 and 73, respectively.
Occupations: Bookstore owners and booksellers.
Hometowns: Baltimore and DC, respectively.

Must-have item at all times:
Cohen: “The New Yorker.”
Meade: “My mind.”

Signature drink:
Cohen: “Café latte.”
Meade: “Diet Coke.”

Finish this sentence: When not working, you can find me . . .
Cohen: . . . reading the newspaper at my dining table. I’m afraid that if I ever stopped working, that’s where you would find me the entire day.
Meade: . . . reading here or in southwest Colorado.

Washingtonians you admire:
Cohen: Author Edward Jones, judge Patricia Wald, DC deputy mayor Dan Tangherlini, Gwen Ifill.
Meade: Mary Cheh, Marie Arana, George Pelecanos, Vernon Jordan.

Favorite neighborhood in Washington:
Cohen: Rock Creek Park.
Meade: Friendship Heights, where I live, because I get nervous when I’m more than a mile from Rodman’s.

Washington insider tip:
Cohen: Dumbarton Oaks is a treasure that many people don’t know about.
Meade: An exhaust fan is a must for Washington summers.

Finish this sentence: Thinking about the Metro makes me . . .
Cohen: . . . wish that our store could afford to be closer but glad we have it and that it got built back in ’60s and ’70s before it would have been prohibitively expensive.
Meade: . . . excited to jump on and see what people are reading.

Favorite authors (dead or alive):
Cohen: George Orwell for his staunchness, Wallace Stegner for his humanity, George Packer because he’s always right-on in his reporting, Ian McEwen for his dissection of contemporary life.
Meade: Alive, John Updike; dead, George Eliot.

What would you change about Washington?
Cohen: More independent businesses like you find in San Francisco.
Meade: Create first-rate schools.

As you answer these questions, what Web sites are open in your browser?
Meade: Google, Washington Post, Politics and Prose.

Twenty-five years of business for an independent bookstore is quite remarkable. Looking back, what are some of your fondest memories?
Cohen: When Wallace Stegner came and the line for two signings went out the door and down the block. Ditto when Bill Clinton came and he was so nice to everybody. Great discussions with many writers. Recently, with Fareed Zakaria, who said that ours was the only bookstore he was coming to, and with Michael Eric Dyson, who’s so smart and so funny.
Meade: Most of my memories circle around author events that we’ve had in the store: Wallace Stegner, Julia Child, Katharine Graham, Margaret Atwood, Caroline Kennedy, Kate and Jim Lehrer, Tom Wolfe, and many more. But I also have very fond memories of many of the booksellers who have worked here over the 25 years we’ve been in business. Some of them continue to stay in touch.

How many books do you read a month? And how do you go about picking which ones to read?
Cohen: I read most on vacations, when I can read five books a week. The rest of the time, I only read a book or perhaps two in a week. I pick my books the way everybody picks their book—I read about the book and see if the topic is something I’m interested in. We do receive a lot of bound galleys, and we look at them. Many are of little or no interest to us, but it does give us a chance to see a lot of the books that are coming out.
Meade: I’ll read maybe five whole books a month but I’ll half read or skim another dozen or more. We receive many advance copies of books before they’re published, and I look at them and see what sparks my interest. If a publisher’s representative persuades me that I’ll enjoy a book, I’ll usually read it.

Does either of you own a Kindle or other electronic book device? Do you think they’ll eventually replace books?
Cohen: I don’t own an electronic device—I don’t even have an iPod. I don’t know whether e-books will replace books between covers. I do know that people don’t read on the computer. They hop around, and nobody reads a sustained work. I don’t know why—if you love sentences and narrative and discovery—you would want to replace a book. It’s the world’s perfect device: portable, easy to follow, skip a bit if you get bogged down, find the beginning and the end, read back a few pages or chapters if you need to reorient yourself.
Meade: No, I don’t even do audio books, though Carla is a great fan of them.

What books would you recommend to President Obama and his family if they stopped by for a visit?

Cohen: I already did recommend a couple of books to the President: Traitor to His Class by H.L. Brands, about FDR. I also love Giants by John Stauffer, about the friendship between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Meade: They’re so well read that I’d recommend any book very carefully. Their Chicago bookstore, 57th Street Books, reports that the whole family spends hours browsing the shelves. The Washington Post has just quoted the manager there as saying, “I’m a little jealous of Politics and Prose, the independent Washington bookstore.”

Finally, the most important question of our time: Harry Potter or Twilight, and why?
Cohen: Anything that kids read is good.
Meade: Neither—I don’t know children’s books. I don’t have to because there’s such a brainy group in our children’s department.

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