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.
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.

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