Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Independent bookstore feels just like home

Book lovers, comedians and famous authors flock to District's own Politics and Prose

A young child sits on a plush tan bear chair, thumbing through an R.L. Stein horror book. A couple sits on an oversized couch stirring mammoth teacups and discussing politics. College students tap away at computer keys while frantically flipping through texts. A glass door opens and a burst of cool air ushers in a diverse group of people who have navigated a treacherous parking lot to linger in one of D.C.'s independent bookstores, Politics and Prose.

A Literary Gem on Connecticut Avenue

On any given night, one can walk into the building at 5015 Connecticut Ave. N.W. and see a store packed with people sitting in oversized chairs and listening intently to famous speakers, ranging from Pulitzer Prize-winner Alice Walker to New York Times columnist Frank Rich to news anchor Jim Lehrer.

When Politics and Prose first opened its doors to the public in 1984, the events coordinator had to beg people to speak at the store, co-owner Barbara Meade said. But as time passed, the bookstore became more recognizable.

"At some point there was a tipping point and we were doing less asking and publishers were calling us. There are about five authors for every speaking slot we have," Meade said.

Speakers that hold events draw large crowds to the store, according to Meade. The store welcomes politicians, fiction writers and comedians - anyone who has an interesting story or point of view, according to Meade. The three most successful visits were President Clinton, "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart and "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling, Meade said.

"Bill Clinton was very exciting when he was promoting his memoir. It was a special thrill to have him here at our store," said Mark Laframboise, a book buyer at Politics and Prose. "People lined up all the way down Nebraska [Avenue] to hear him speak."

Money Isn't the Purpose

Carla Cohen, an urban planning specialist, and Meade, a Potomac, Md., native and bookseller, opened the store 22 years ago. During the store's inaugural year, it reported profits of approximately $250,000. Now, over two decades later, the store reports that it grosses roughly $6 million annually, a 95.8 percent increase from their opening year. The store was also named Bookseller of the Year in 1999 by Publisher's Weekly.

Despite the store's popularity, Meade and Cohen's original vision of a community-based store is still intact.

"Money isn't the purpose. Our mission it to help make the world a better place to live through community, reading and friendships," Meade said.

One of the main goals of Politics and Prose is to "make the customers feel special. Too much of modern life is anonymous at best and often brusque and unpleasant," according to Cohen.

"We can provide an oasis of civility and comfort," she said.

Community and Customer Service

Customer service isn't the only thing that makes Politics and Prose so successful, Meade said. The bookstore also gives back to the community through free speaker events, classes on literature and community outreach programs in local schools.

The most successful program that Politics and Prose runs is the free evening book group. They are open to the public and meet monthly to discuss books of different genres including public affairs, art and fiction.

Politics and Prose is also an escape from the bustle of everyday life and allows people with similar interests to interact, said Geoff Williams, a high school student and Politics and Prose customer.

"It's a place where people can come together and talk to each other. With all the new technology like iPods and cell phones, you could sit next to someone for an hour on the Metro and never exchange a word," Williams said.

"It's something about just saying, 'Hi, I read that author, that's a book you should read,'" he said.

A man with rimmed glasses and wavy brown hair, fondly known to the staff as "the reader," demonstrates just how appealing the bookstore can be. David Fellman spends about 20 hours a week reading in a lounge chair at Politics and Prose but has never purchased a book there.

"I come here almost daily for a couple hours during the evening and a good portion of the afternoon on weekends. I come because there is nothing else more compelling going on," Fellman said.

Help From National Media

The relationship that Politics and Prose has developed with the national media has also contributed to its widespread popularity, Meade said.

"One of the things that has probably been the most effective PR is we have a wonderful relationship with C-SPAN. [Our author talks] are probably on C-SPAN a dozen times a month," Meade said. "We have a lot of people who happen to be in Washington as tourists and they always want to make a visit to Politics and Prose because they saw us on C-SPAN."

From the coffee house, to the speakers, to the wide selection and great service, Politics and Prose has it all, according to Amelia Saletan, a Politics and Prose customer.

"People are just drawn to the bookstore," Saletan said.

For more information on Politics and Prose, including a schedule of upcoming events and speakers, go to the store's Web site, Upcoming events include Colin MacKinnon on Dec. 8 and Jim Lehrer on Dec. 11.

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