When my first novel was published in the summer of 1992, I was working a full-time day job as a newspaper columnist. But every weekend I would fire up my 1954 Buick – which figured largely in the novel – and drive from my North Carolina home to far-flung independent bookstores to give readings, answer questions and sign books. I’m sure I spent way more on gas than I made selling books.
One of the first stores I visited was Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., where I was greeted warmly by the owners, an effusive woman named Carla Cohen and her more reserved partner, Barbara Meade. Only later did I learn that Meade thought she worked like a cat (“unobtrusively”) while Cohen worked more like a dog (“joyfully”). They readily agreed to let me park my Buick right on the sidewalk in front of the store. Cohen and Meade understood that it pays to advertise, especially when the advertising is free and sports a two-tone paintjob and a glittering “Dagmar” front bumper. The reading was a success for all of us.
So naturally I was saddened to learn that Carla Cohen died on Monday at the age of 74 from a rare form of bile duct cancer.
But I was also heartened to learn that Politics and Prose, which Cohen and Meade opened in 1984, has become a cultural institution in our nation’s capital and that crowds routinely line up down the block to attend readings by the likes of Bill Clinton, J.K. Rowling and Tom Wolfe. The secret of the store’s success has been that the owners loved books and weren’t afraid to have opinions or share them with their customers. And the customers responded to that passion.
When news of Cohen’s cancer diagnosis got out last summer, she and Meade put the store up for sale. They received about 50 offers and narrowed them down to half a dozen. While some book lovers in Washington are anxious, it appears likely the popular store will live on.
Other independent bookstores I visited during those long-ago selling trips have not fared as well. Books First in Richmond, for one, is gone. Many others have succumbed to chain stores, on-line retailing and the sad fact that serious readers of serious writing, always a tiny minority in America, are beginning to look like an endangered species. Yet some of the stores I visited are not only surviving, but thriving. In addition to Politics and Prose there are The Regulator in Durham, N.C., Prince Books in Norfolk and Burke’s Books in Memphis. Patrick Brown recently wrote an enlightening essay in these pages about other independents that are beating the odds.
Almost always there are passionate book lovers like Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade involved in those successful stores. When Matt Drudge asked to give a talk at Politics and Prose, Cohen turned him down, saying he wasn’t a journalist, he was a “rumormonger.”
Thanks for doing that. And thanks for letting me park my Buick in front of your store, Carla Cohen. You will be missed.