Interview with a Bookstore: Politics & Prose
Hanging Out in the President's Bookstore
In the autumn of 1984, Barbara Meade and Carla Cohen opened Politics & Prose in Washington D.C. The store was purchased by Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine in June 2011; they continue the original mission of the store: “The bookstore will offer superior service and unusual book choices; it will serve as a gathering place for people interested in reading and discussing books.” We spoke with the staff and Politics & Prose about what it takes to be an independent bookstore in our nation’s capital.
What’s your favorite section in the store?
Hannah Depp (Merchandise Display Manager): We have an American popular culture section, or as I like to call it, the weird NPR section. This is where we keep the good stuff. Here you find books about the Renaissance fairs in America, the cult of Lego, barber shops in Detroit, and all the Sarah Vowel books, and Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful atlases of San Francisco and New Orleans. The book I currently have displayed there is a photography book of small-town mayors. I take customers there looking for unique books, great gifts, or a compelling non-fiction read. I go there and poke at the books so I can remember the side of my country that makes me glad to live here. Even better, the “sister section” next to it is American Race and Religion. The books there don’t let readers off the hook: investigations of class and race intersection stand next to Muslims in America or, my personal favorite, Nuns on a Bus. I enjoy these sections because they are the best of non-fiction writing and yet diverse in subject. It’s very American, very melting pot, the books may look a bit odd altogether but they paint a full portrait of this country.
Justin Stephani (Programs Manager): The fiction room. I could shelve in there for days.
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Jenny Clines (Special Projects Manager): I think the thing that we do better than any other indie bookstore is innovate and expand. In the last few years our store has embraced and tackled many new challenges. We have nearly doubled our in-store author events; we’ve increased our participation with local book festivals and parties; we were fortunate to stock, staff, and run the National Book Festival for the first time last year; we invested in Opus, an Espresso Book Machine; we began District Lines, a yearly literary anthology. Most recently, we have begun operating the bookstores in a local restaurant chain called Busboys and Poets.
With all of this growth, our owners, managers, and staff have created new ways of operating day to day. There isn’t really any such thing as “business as usual” around here anymore. Although this progress has not been without certain growing pains, we have pushed through challenges to find success. And the very best part of all of it is that, I think, we all still feel lucky to work at this place and happy to work with each other. For the most part anyway!
Justin: Events and programs. I’m certainly biased, but we get a number of authors in the store every day to teach and read. The scope of the store’s offerings continues to amaze me.
Josh Levi (Marketing & Publicity Assistant): As a bookstore, I can confidently say that we pride ourselves on our events. We host over 400-plus in-store events a year. Our events team is the absolute best at what they do and their diligent work affords both the bookstore staff and the public at large with an opportunity to see authors fresh off Charlie Rose, The Daily Show, or NPR. Where else can you see some of your favorite authors for free, let alone have a brief moment to tell them how much you admire them? Our events provide an open forum for the community to engage on issues that mean so much to them, and I find that rather remarkable. For the staff, we are presented with a unique platform to connect with authors and audiences alike, as well as iron out those public speaking jitters. There is no other place in the world that I’d get the chance to meet Sherman Alexie, Azar Nafisi, Michelle Obama, David Sedaris, John Waters, B.J. Novak, and Judy Blume in under two years.
Who’s your weirdest regular?
Josh: Definitely not the weirdest, but rather the weirdest to see: Ian MacKaye, Dick Gregory, Chris Matthews, and Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. Coming from St. Louis and arriving in DC, running into Ian MacKaye on a sleepy Tuesday at the store was totally mind-blowing. As someone I’ve looked up to since I was a teenager, it’s a rad feeling to say “Hello” as he types away in the café or browses our art wall. Dick Gregory is a legend in his own right. When he casually strolls in and asks how my family is my heart is instantly warmed. It doesn’t hurt that he’s from St. Louis either. After seeing someone like Chris Matthews on television for years, it can be totally warping to see him standing in front of you. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan is a bit of a sleeper celebrity around the store. She comes in unassumingly, picks out her books, and quietly checks out. No muss, no fuss. Shortly after the Prop 8 ruling, she came in and everyone on staff wanted to give her a great big hug. However, being the bookselling professionals that we are, a few simple “thank yous” did the trick.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Justin: I once had a customer ask if the store has a section for books on Kyrgyzstan or if I could show them some titles about the country.
Lew Gleich (Bookseller): Things were insanely busy in the store on Small Business Saturday when President Obama came to visit with his daughters. The whole time I was working the register, the entire White House Press Corps was just a few feet away filming and taking photographs. The craziest part of it all, however, was when the President handed me a $20 bill and I told him I needed to use the counterfeit marker to make sure it wasn’t fake.
Hannah: I’d say a clear high point of my tenure here has been ringing up President Obama on Small Business Saturday. There’s a lot of reasons Obama means a lot to me as a woman of color, someone who graduated in tough economic times with student loans, and someone who cares about learning for its own sake. But really, chatting with him and his daughters about their book choices, their family in-jokes, and what he liked about the store topped all of the above. My president loves books and indies, what more could I ask for?
Josh: Our signing with Stephen Colbert was one of the first big in-store events I had to work. From crowd control and strategic shelf placement to dealing with security and crazy fans, the pressure was definitely on. There’s always that one elderly regular who acts like nothing strange is going on and asks that infuriating question about a rare edition of Voltaire that we absolutely do not have. Somehow, I was the first to shake Colbert’s hand and my year was made.
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
Eowyn Randall (Children & Teens Bookseller): I grew up coming to Politics and Prose, and when I wasn’t upstairs pretending I could read War and Peace, I was downstairs in the Children and Teens department sneaking a look at books I knew my mother wouldn’t approve of (like Berenstain Bears or Tintin—she had peculiar restrictions). When she came to get me I’d shove them under whatever shelf was nearest. So whenever I’m scouring the store for a book that just won’t reveal itself these days I check under the shelves and figure I’m doing penance.
If you weren’t running/working at a bookstore what would you be doing?
Rhonda Shary (Book-A-Month Coordinator): I would be spending all the money I made at some far less meaningful job in this bookstore. Don’t laugh. It’s true. And not really sad at all.
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
Josh: I’m still constantly surprised (and saddened) when a customer assumes that we get our entire stock from Amazon. Fortunately, this gives us as booksellers an opportunity to inform customers what we do, why we do it, and hopefully bring a little insight into the world of indies. The advent of Google still hasn’t quite caught up with a big percentage of our customers and it’s easy to feel like a human search engine. Pretty much everything in Jennifer Campbell’s Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores is frighteningly on point.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
Hannah: A section just about words and images—a lot of typography to be sure, but also just books whose sole purpose is to beautifully pair words with images. This rather flies in the face of telling a story first, but I don’t care. It would be lovely.
Josh: I’d love to have a couple of those large book stands that lay giant art books flat. It’d be great to see those giant prints from Annie Leibovitz, Guy Bourdin, Steve McCurry, and Glen E. Friedman get some love.
Eowyn: All of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall novels. They were instrumental in my growth as a reader of fantasy and I love to pass them on to the next generation.
SLIDESHOW: Politics & Prose Staff Recommendations