Written by Barbara Meade (March 2013)
There’s an old retail maxim, “location, location, location,” and Carla Cohen, a former urban planner with HUD, got location exactly right when she selected a vacant storefront in a what had been for years the most dreary retail grouping of stores on both sides of one block of Connecticut Avenue. Located midway between what was identified as Van Ness and Chevy Chase, the block had long been a no-name location. When Carla selected the space, the anchor of the block was Higger’s, a wonderfully classic drugstore that offered home delivery. In little more than a decade, Higger’s was put out of business by competition from the discount chains. CVS, which is now in the same space, is a sad successor to
the store that focused so completely on customer service. On the same side of Connecticut were two tired restaurants, the Thai Room and Cafe Burgundy.
At the time that Politics and Prose opened, in 1984, the bookstore was on the weaker retail side of Connecticut Avenue, sandwiched by The Yarn Shop and a title company, but the store benifitted from two popular businesses on the same side of the avenue, the Clover Market (under Sam Steinberg’s ownership, offering the finest meats and produce in the area as well as home delivery) and Mr. L’s (an odd combination of a Jewish delicatessen and Chinese restaurant that was constantly packed). Later the space became the Uptown Cathay and is now Jake’s.
Politics and Prose started in 1984 with just two booksellers, Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade, whom Carla had found through a classified ad in the Washington Post in search of a manager who knew the book business, which Carla did not. The store was small, in the same space that Tersasol is now.
Five years later P&P had grown to about six booksellers and was beginning to run out of space. In 1989 Carla and Barbara, who had now become a partner, looked at a space across the street that had been vacant for several years and decided to make the move, doubling the size of the store and as well as rent obligations. The store invited its customers to help carry all the books across the street and at 7:30 am on a Sunday morning, many, many customers volunteered their services. Like the story of “Make Way for Ducklings,” a policeman stood in the middle of Connecticut to stop traffic as customers carried hundreds of cartons of books across the street. Susan Stamberg reported the move live on NPR.
After the move, sales dramatically increased. Within several years, P&P’s next-door neighbors, Metro Video and a futon store both went out of business and P&P took over their retail space, doubling P&P’s square footage. But even then, the bookstore’s increasing sales and tightening shelf space kept
the owners looking for even more space. In a fourth expansion, P&P supplied the manpower to move the adjacent business, Sheffield Liquor, five doors down the block and take over their space as well, increasing their square footage by another 50 percent. In addition, Barbara and Carla bought an office condo around the corner on Nebraska Avenue to accommodate all the store’s offices. Only the owners kept their very visible and accessible office in the store.
In 2010 Carla died from a fast-moving malignancy. Shortly before the diagnosis, she and Barbara had decided that, both nearing 75 years old, it was time to put the store in younger hands. From a pool of some 50 prospective buyers, Barbara and Carla’s widowed husband, David Cohen, chose Bradley
Graham and Lissa Muscatine as the best candidates to share the vision of the store, to be a literary and cultural center of DC, as well as the USA.
Sales continue to increase with good news and bad news for the neighborhood. The good: real estate ads headline “Near Politics and Prose,” and property values have increased because of that proximity.
The bad: on evenings of large events in the store, neighbors complain of not being able to park near their house.
The block still has no name, but three decades later it is humming with activity. Four restaurants, Buck’s, Comet, Terasol, and Jake’s offer a wide variety of food choices. Marvelous Market and Besta Pizza supplement the eat-in menus with carry-out. Most often, the block now is referred to as the block where Politics and Prose is.
Happy customers outside Politics & Prose,
including HCCDC board members, Carl & Pam Lankowski