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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Politics & Prose Boosktore
The last time The Open Bar visited our nation’s capital we assumed there weren’t any worthwhile bookstores. Maybe we were still under the sway of the previous administration’s lack of reading skills, but we toured the Beltway more like Marion Barry than a book scout. Big mistake on our part. Not only does Pennsylvania Avenue currently have a resident who can read (and write), but the city has many vibrant and thriving bookstores, too. In this week’s installment of Book Clubbing, former Tin House intern Daniel Rivas takes us inside one such place, Politics & Prose.
On Tuesday mornings at Politics and Prose Bookstore the Info Desk counters are stacked high with new releases waiting to go on display. When I worked there it was easy to lose a whole morning thumbing through those crisp volumes, choosing a few to take with me into the stacks where I would read while trying to ignore the ringing phones.
Situated in an upper middle-class neighborhood in Northwest Washington D.C., P&P is one of the last large and thriving independent bookstores in the country. The store hosts readings nearly every night and in some weeks as many as a dozen authors speak in the ad hoc event space created nightly by P&P booksellers. Larger events fill auditoriums around town and the store runs a small off-site events department to facilitate book parties.
When I worked at P&P strangers often told me how jealous they were that I worked at a bookstore. They must have thought of the place as some sort of literary play land, as if books stuffed with wise or stirring passages sprung from the shelves and into my hands and the staff sat around after hours sipping cocktails while passing around and discussing our favorite novels.” This is not to say that P&P wasn’t a vast literary education, but that it was hard work to staff a store so busy and with a clientele so well-read. The phone never seemed to stop ringing and lines at the cash registers could appear at any time of day. The job required an encyclopedic knowledge of books because customers often came in having heard something on NPR or read some review somewhere, but the title and author’s name had escaped them. I came home each night with tired eyes and tired feet, but also with at least one enviable perk—a stack of free books.
“Inside the beltway” is a popular term to throw around, but you don’t really understand what that means until you live in D.C. I often saw Howard Norman perusing the fiction room and Seymour Hirsch pulling down titles from the nonfiction display. Kay Redfield Jamison, Kate Lehrer, and Judith Warner were regulars, as was conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer’s wife, who was the most smilingly pleasant customer I have ever met. Alan Cheuse sometimes attended readings. George Will popped in occasionally on Sunday mornings, browsing the shelves before visiting his mother. The bookstore made D.C. feel like a small town and our nation’s politics like local gossip.
Politics has always been at the center of P&P. It was founded after Jimmy Carter lost the election in 1980 and Carla Cohen lost her job. She spent three years unemployed and during that time she and her husband hosted salons in their home that included many prominent journalists, public employees, and activists. In 1984, she partnered with Barbara Meade to open Politics and Prose, and the two of them worked side by side for 26 years. Growing steadily through the 1990s and 2000s, P&P became a must-stop for touring authors, especially D.C. writers whose books were of political importance. As David Plotz, editor at Slate, told Ryan Grim of Politico, “If there’s one bookstore in the city you want to read in, [P&P is] obviously the place.”
However, what made P&P a home for me and hundreds of other literary refuges in Washington D.C., were Carla and Barbara’s voracious love of books and their eagerness to champion outstanding writers. Carla especially had a passion for literary fiction and loved to talk about writers she admired like Wallace Stegner, with whom she exchanged letters for many years. I remember her always pushing books into my hands, telling me, “You have to read this.” Of course, she was always right. The problem was never, How do I tell her I don’t like it¬¬? The problem was that I could never read fast enough to keep up with her recommendations.
Carla passed away last October and recently the store was sold. The buyers, Bradley Graham and his wife Lissa Muscatine, beat out six other bidders, including a group led by ex-New Republic editor Franklin Foer and Atlantic magazine writer Jeffrey Goldberg. Graham and Muscatine are the American Gothic of D.C. insiders. He is a veteran of the Washington Post and she has worked for both Clintons. Although I’m sure Barbara and Carla’s husband David thoroughly vetted all of the bidders to ensure that they are a good fit, I think loyal customers are worried that P&P will lose the intangible qualities that made the store an inviting literary space.
For me, at least, P&P will never be the same. I moved to Portland and haven’t been to the store in over a year, but I can still see the wide expanse of shelves on wheels and tables stacked high with paperbacks, the customers’ eyes scanning covers and spines in an ecstatic fever, the Info Desk mobbed by people holding up to their faces precious and tiny scraps of paper on which are scrawled clues that will lead them to their next book. I can even still see Carla there, tilting back in a chair behind the desk, punching a title into the computer and saying, “You’re going to love it. It’s so good.”
Daniel Rivas is a former intern at Tin House and a graduate of the University of Michigan’s MFA program in creative writing. He lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.