City on a Hill: D.C. loses a literary icon

October 21, 2010

This past week, Carla Cohen passed away at age of 74.  A Washington resident, Cohen became one of the most celebrated booksellers in America after she founded a bookstore 26 years ago. When the Reagan Administration eliminated her position at the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs, she decided to establish a bookstore that she would like to spend time in—a comfortable store with a knowledgeable staff and a regular community of readers.  That bookstore became Politics and Prose.

Home to a wonky and cerebral selection, Politics and Prose is not just an intellectual hub for Northwest D.C. It has cultivated a national reputation and serves as the primary location for top-notch authors who want to promote their books in the District.  In the recent past, the store has attracted literary giants such as John Updike and Alice Walker, President Bill Clinton, photographer Anne Leibowitz, and investigative reporter Seymour Hersh.

“I can’t imagine there’s a bookstore in the country with a more vibrant list of speakers, or with a more dedicated following in its community,” The Guardian’s Michael Tomasky wrote on his blog. “Even if you’ve never been there, if you watch any C-SPAN books coverage, you have seen people speaking from P & P dozens of times.”

That may be, but the future of Politics and Prose, like that of many independent businesses in the District and across the nation, is uncertain—the store has been for sale since June. This is not surprising. During the current period of economic uncertainty, independent bookstores have been closing in droves. In September 2008, the five locations of Olsson’s Books abruptly shut their doors. These closures were shortly followed by the shutdown of local shops Vertigo Books and Trover Books. At this point, Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle is the only independent bookseller in the area that rivals Politics and Prose in the size and diversity of its selection.  The closure of small bookstores is due, in part, to the difficulty of running a small business.

“You have to have a lot of respect for anybody who is operating a small business for longer than the average lifespan of five years,” Mark Warmuth, owner of the iconic downtown coffee shop M.E. Swing Co., explained. “[Politics and Prose has] been around for a long time, and that tells you something about the person behind it, that they genuinely loved the business and created something impressive.”

It’s stores like Politics and Prose that make D.C. such a vibrant place and help us defy the stereotype that our city is overflowing with drab bureaucrats. These small businesses provide critical retail diversity and a high-quality customer service experience.

It is important to patronize these independent businesses, and local governments should do everything in their power to help them to thrive.  According to statistics complied by CNN Money, D.C. is the most difficult state or territory in the nation to start a business.  Downtown rents are extremely high, and corporate and personal income taxes are very steep.

In the future, D.C. should prioritize small business needs and encourage developers to incorporate space specifically for small businesses into their plans.  The city could also consider tax breaks for small businesses, which are nearly absent across broad swathes of downtown.

As the local literary scene mourns the loss of a remarkable individual, we can only hope that Politics and Prose will find a suitable new owner. But in addition to supporting that exceptional bookstore as it goes through a critical transition period, Washingtonians should remember to do their part and support all the local businesses that make D.C. a vibrant and interesting place to live, work, and study. Small businesses are what give cities their distinctive characters. Despite the District’s unique political status among our nation’s urban areas, D.C. is no exception.


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