Readers' Retreat Carla Cohen at Politics and Prose in 1989
The word passion is thrown around in business so much that to rescue the concept, one needs to examine the sort of life led by Carla Cohen, founder of the famous Washington, D.C., bookstore Politics and Prose.
Forget market studies and exit strategies. No passionless or entirely sane person would have launched a bookstore in a quiet D.C. neighborhood 26 years ago. Discounter Crown Books was already mowing down little booksellers, an assault soon intensified by Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. Thousands of stores closed.
Cohen, wife of the liberal lobbyist David Cohen, and herself a Jimmy Carter appointee at Housing and Urban Development, more than anything loved to read. Good literature. Biography. Politics. Jobless after Ronald Reagan swept Carter's people out, she stewed on how to turn the intellectual salon she and her husband presided over at their home into a living.
And that's why Politics and Prose, which today has annual sales of more than $7 million, is more than a bookstore, and also why it prospered where others failed. Salon, indeed. The store hosts some 500 author appearances a year.
"Last month it was [New Yorker editor and Obama biographer David] Remnick, [novelist Jonathan] Franzen, and Condi Rice," says Cohen's son, Aaron, a New York Internet entrepreneur. "This is a woman -- I'm not sure she understood that revenue minus costs equals profits. But she was such a keen merchandiser of books and expert at bringing people together."
Cohen had cancer of the bile ducts and died October 11. She was 74.
Cohen read in the morning, then went to the store, then read at night. "Very disciplined," says her husband, David. At the store, Aaron Cohen says, she asked customers, " 'So, what do you like?' They'd tell her, and she had read it. And she'd go to the shelf and say, 'What about this?' That's merchandising."
Cohen hired Barbara Meade as the store's first manager, and they were soon partners, two very different women, the same age, sharing a small office. "We really worked out of each other's hip pocket," says Meade. To Cohen's voluble impresario, Meade was taciturn stage manager. They traveled together, visiting and critiquing bookstores. Politics and Prose was the first East Coast bookstore to feature a coffeehouse.
All charming. But how to survive as a mostly full-price retailer? Cohen and Meade sold memberships for $25 a year, entitling holders to discounts; 8,500 people belong today. A weekly e-mail of events, book reviews (many of which Cohen wrote), and deals goes to 23,000. It's a community, lifting Politics and Prose above mere price competition.
After Cohen's cancer diagnosis late last year, the founders began looking for a buyer for the store. Price is important, but Meade says, "They have to be a book lover. I want them to continue the mission. One of my deepest wishes was Carla would live to see who would be the next owner." Sadly, any deal is months away.