Susan Coll was already an established novelist when she started working at Politics and Prose in 2011, and she promised the store’s owners that she wouldn’t write some kind of comic behind-the-scenes account of the beloved Connecticut Avenue shop. Oops. “I assured them that was not my intention,” says Coll, who ran the store’s programming and author events. “It truly was not! It just happened.”
Coll’s latest novel, Bookish People, turns out to be a lightly fictionalized, highly exaggerated, and very entertaining look at the lives of beleaguered booksellers. So why did she go back on her promise? After Coll left that job in 2016, she continued receiving the store manager’s end-of-day emails. She was tickled by how often the report mentioned issues with the vacuum cleaner, and for some reason that routine housekeeping headache felt like a jumping-off point—just the “hilarity of it frequently being broken,” she says. “So I started to write.”
Sure enough, dust-sucking appliances play a funny running role in Bookish People, but the novel is more than a one-note workplace comedy: It also explores the suffocating anxiety and foreboding that defines modern life—and that bookish people often try to escape by hanging out at places like P&P. The action mostly happens in August 2017, during the brief stretch between the violence in Charlottesville and the solar eclipse. Sophie, the store’s owner, is wrestling with “a creeping terror and inability to cope,” Coll writes. But she knows about a secret room inside the bookstore, which beckons as a place to hide—perhaps permanently. All she wants to do is crawl in, lock the door, and shut out the world. Who can’t relate? (The author claims, disappointingly, that Politics and Prose has no such hidden nook.)
When Coll decided to write all of this, she believed her time at P&P was behind her. But this spring she unexpectedly returned as a part-time events adviser, helping the store ramp up after the shutdown. Being there around when her book is coming out—and watching employees read advance copies—is “very awkward,” she says. On the plus side: The vacuum now appears to be working quite nicely.
Coll also serves as board president for the PEN/Faulkner Foundation—raising the question of whether her next novel might be set inside the wacky world of a DC literary organization. The possibility has led to a lot of jokes around PEN/Faulkner, but Coll says she isn’t planning anything along those lines. That’s what she promised with P&P, though, so . . . . “No,” Coll insists, laughing. “I am not writing that book.” Consider it a maybe.
This article appears in the August 2022 issue of Washingtonian.