Beyond Vassar

Politics and Prose is Tops

By Maryann Teale Snell

An independent bookstore founded 15 years ago in Washington, DC, by Barbara Meade '57 and her business partner Carla Cohen was designated Bookseller of the Year by Publishers Weekly in 1999. The pair's shop-Politics and Prose-has not only stayed afloat despite repeated "shakedowns" in the book industry, it has thrived. These days, P & P does 15 times the business it did in its first year, and there's no indication that trend will ease up. 

While giant competitors have consistently run smaller bookstores out of town, Politics and Prose has flourished. "A lot of people don't want to do business with large, anonymous organizations," Meade says, stressing the importance of being personally involved with customers. The rewards, she adds, can be measured in such memorable moments as the day they enlisted customer help to move to their current location. It was 96°F on a Sunday in July, and 350 people showed up to pack and move books. Politics and Prose gives back to the community, too: by pitching in at local schools, hosting public events, and contributing financially to several area social agencies.

The bookstore itself is bright, open, and liberally sprinkled with comfortable, overstuffed furniture. A coffeehouse was added in 1993-on President Clinton's inauguration day, to be exact. (Bill himself was once in the store to buy a book. Hillary has also been in a couple of times, and Chelsea shops there a fair amount.)

Customers, who "tend to be unusually well-educated," according to Meade, range from astrophysicists to those who read nothing but poetry. Despite the name, Politics and Prose is a general, not a political, bookstore. It caters not only to readers and writers in the Washington community but also to those across the country. The store's World Wide Web site is a big hit, and nightly readings-by celebrity authors as well as lesser-known ones-also draw crowds. Hundreds of area reading groups are registered with the store, which sponsors over a dozen book discussion groups of its own-including one for middle-school students.

When Meade got into the book business, it was because she liked to read. With virtually no previous experience in management, she found out that running a business is no small task. But she has no regrets. In fact, Meade says, Politics and Prose is exactly where she and Cohen envisioned it would be when they first opened its doors. And they intend to keep it growing.