Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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Fifteen minutes should have been enough time to find a good seat.

At a lot of bookstores, it would have been—especially when the main attraction was a former labor secretary’s book on income inequality. But Politics and Prose is not a lot of bookstores. So, with every chair occupied and every aisle clogged, I rubbernecked at Robert Reich from behind a column in the spirituality section.

What followed was a pretty typical P&P event: It opened with a long thank-you to the store’s owners, Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade, both 74; it continued into a fairly meaty reading; it ended with intelligent audience questions that crackled with a civic energy that is hard to find in Washington. It was pretty easy to get romantic about the whole scene: We were book people and our tribal council was a purple-awning storefront on Connecticut Avenue near the Maryland border. As the audience queued up to buy Reich’s book, I overheard a red-haired clerk tell a patron at the cash register that Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan recently bought a copy, too.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Blocks away, one of the tribal council’s founders had only a few weeks to live. Carla Cohen was suffering from cancer of the bile ducts, fading in and out of lucidity. In her last public appearance, she and Meade, her business partner of 26 years, accepted the Legacy Award from the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association on Sept 21. It was the first time the honor went to booksellers. All the previous winners were prominent authors, such as Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Auster, and Pete Hamill.

For devotees of the store, the folks who flock to its author events, join its book clubs, or just appreciate its stellar inventory and knowledgeable staff, concern for Cohen’s health was also tied up in worries about P&P’s future. In June, Cohen and Meade announced that they wanted to sell the store and retire. The news created a flurry of offers. But the glowing descriptions of the store in Washington Post and New York Times articles about the sale represented a mixed blessing: Cohen and Meade were surprised they had to fight the perception that the store was shutting down. One confused fan wrote on Politics and Prose’s Facebook page: “Have you read this article in Washington Post? Is the bookstore really closing? :-(”

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

The store tried to head off these worries. “No, the bookstore is far from closing,” read its Facebook response. “Our fiscal year ended June 30th and we had record sales for the 2009-2010 year, up over last year by more then 7 percent. We are not yet accepting offers, but when we do, we are confident that we can find a buyer right in the P&P tradition.” By August, Cohen and Meade had released an open letter telling customers the sales process would take “at least nine months before changes were made.”

But even as management remained tight-lipped, the process of figuring out P&P’s future was taking shape. Cohen and Meade quietly brought in Rich Goldberg, a New York-based consultant whose parents live just over the D.C.-Maryland line in Chevy Chase, to help sell the store. To date, Goldberg says, the owners have received inquiries from about 50 interested parties. The field was narrowed to a dozen, but Goldberg, Meade and Cohen’s family won’t say who they are. The Times identified a group led by literary agent Raphael Sagalyn and Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic, along with Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic (and no relation to Rich Goldberg), and another party headed by Nicholas Kittrie, a law professor at American University, as prospective buyers. Neither will say whether they’ve made the cut. David Cohen, a former president of Common Cause, now controls his late wife’s stake in the store. Their son Aaron, an experienced Internet executive who has been involved in the sales of several companies, is advising. David Cohen describes the ideal new owners as “people who can move in multiple circles like Carla and Barbara. They were comfortable talking to publishers, comfortable talking to editors, comfortable talking to journalists and of course, comfortable with the customers.”

Cohen died Oct. 11. The owner search has been halted during the mourning. At her funeral on Oct. 13, her son Aaron told a capacity crowd at Tifereth Israel Synagogue that he’d promised his mother he would find owners worthy enough to continue her legacy. Now the search continues.

Who would want to buy a bookstore now? The printed word is supposed to be deteriorating like a sand castle in the digital ocean. First, Amazon devastated bookstore revenue with e-commerce. Then the company attacked actual books with its Kindle reading device. This past July, Amazon sold more e-books than hardcovers. The Barnes & Noble megachain—once the bête noire of indies like P&P—has put itself up for sale and converted its stores into showrooms for its Nook, a Kindle knockoff. Borders, the also-ran chain of bookstores, announced last week it has created a system to let anyone publish their own electronic book for $89.99 a pop. It too has an e-reader, the Kobo. All these trends spell even quicker doom for independent bookstores. Or so the story goes.

“Independent booksellers are not selling, they are liquidating,” says Jay Fishman, a business appraiser, bibliophile and Kindle enthusiast. He laments the closing of Ardmore Paperbook Bookstore a year ago, which was his favorite shop near Philadelphia. “An independent bookstore could be a lifestyle business, but it needs something—a knowledgeable staff, a theme, or events—or it is not surviving.”

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Politics and Prose has all those attributes in abundance. Which explains the sort of literary exceptionalism that has at least some fans convinced that the store will never meet the same grim fate as former local rivals like Olsson’s or the Trover Shop. “We have built the community and the community has built us,” Carla Cohen used to say. That community, forged in significant part by the store’s once-novel, now-standard tactic of turning itself into a forum for author events and discussion groups, is valuable. Meade told the Times this summer that she thought Politics and Prose was worth “somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million.” She now dismisses the remark as an “off-the-cuff” estimate. When you look at the numbers, you’ll see why.

So what is P&P really worth? I put the question to Jeff Jones, a business appraiser and broker from Houston. Jones had never heard of Politics and Prose, but has appraised at least 15 independent bookstores over his 40-year career—a significant figure, given that independent bookstores are rarely appraised or sold through brokers because they typically don’t generate enough revenue to attract serious investors. Jones was immediately suspicious. “You are lucky to get one bidder of a bookstore, let alone 50,” he says, noting the average bookstore does about $1 million in annual sales.

We did some back-of-the-envelope calculations for Politics and Prose. Our results represented an educated guess, at best: P&P is a closely held business and does not disclose all its financial information. Meade says Politics and Prose did more than $7 million in total sales for the past fiscal year, which ended in June. It’s conceivable that booksellers who are paragons of efficiency could pinch pennies enough to produce a gross profit margin of 15 percent, or $1.1 million per year if you round up. That’s a harder margin to maintain, though, when you’re paying salaries for the 55 experienced employees at Politics and Prose. Many bookstores sell for 15 percent of annual sales plus the value of their inventory as a rule of thumb, according to Jones. He estimates the inventory of a bookstore Politics and Prose’s size would range from $1.5 million to $1.8 million (large, specialized bookstores like P&P tend to keep more inventory around longer than the average indie bookseller). Under these projections, the store’s tangible assets may be worth nearly $3 million. No wonder Cohen and Meade received so many offers, probably for even less than the on-paper value of the business. People know a bargain when they see one.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Not everything is rosy. The business has some complicated real estate issues. The current lease at Politics and Prose expires in two years or so, Meade says. She is renegotiating now, but the current location, sandwiched between a CVS and a dry cleaner, offers no room to expand. Its café, meanwhile, is co-owned by James Alefantis and Javier Rivas. Alefantis also owns nearby restaurants Comet Ping Pong and Buck’s Fishing & Camping. Politics and Prose’s contract with Modern Times Coffeehouse expires in 2014. One of the top priorities of any new owners would be to figure out how to expand and work out an arrangement with the coffeeshop.

Accounting dorks call the price buyers pay for a business over and above the value of its tangible assets “goodwill.” It’s an inherently squishy concept. Under old English law, goodwill was defined as the chance customers will “return to the old stand,” says Fishman. By that definition, Politics and Prose has plenty of social street cred. The store spins a web that envelops the entire book world. To glimpse a fraction of its strands, scroll through the dozen of memorials to Carla posted on the store’s website. You’ll see tributes from successful novelists, such as Andrew Sean Greer, author of The Confessions of Max Tivoli, who took Carla’s daughter Eve to prom, and Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer-prize winning author of March, as well as condolences from literary agents and sales reps from major publishing houses. “There are hundreds of writers who imagined Carla as their ideal reader,” bestselling D.C.-based journalist/author Ron Suskind told the crowd of 250 people at the 2010 Heschel Vision Awards on Oct. 24. “She is a tribal leader, like Abraham,” he said.

But the tricky thing about goodwill and the cachet Politics and Prose has is that, while it takes years to build, it can disappear quickly. A budget-minded reduction in payroll could bite into a store’s reputation for knowledgeable booksellers. A move to a Metro-friendly location—suggested by some as a way to compete with newcomers like 14th Street NW’s Busboys and Poets—could make the store less convenient for the Upper Northwest and Montgomery Country types whose Volvos regularly fill the current parking lot. Or new owners could just accidentally do something that telegraphs their inability to get it, whatever it is.

What no accountant will ever truly figure out is how much of the goodwill will leave with Meade and Cohen. Meade, for her part, plans to devote some time to passing the baton: She says she’ll work at the store for at least one year after the sale because many of the prospective buyers do not have direct experience in bookselling.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

You can thank Ronald Reagan for Politics and Prose—or at least his election, which left Cohen out of a job as a federal housing official in 1981. Three years of soul-searching led her to launch a bookstore, but the passion for ideas was present at the beginning.

Growing up in Baltimore, the eldest of six children, Carla Furstenberg was opinionated. Her brother, Mark, a baker and former owner of Marvelous Market and Breadline D.C., remembers Carla sitting on top of the staircase as a child to listen to her father’s Americans for Democratic Action chapter meetings. She campaigned against Maryland’s loyalty oaths in 1952, at age 16, and marched in Birmingham, Ala., in 1965, at age 29. She met her future husband, David, at an Antioch College ADA meeting. The Cohens moved to Washington in 1963. Carla pushed for better urban-planning practices, first at the House Subcommittee on the City and later the Carter administration.

Carla didn’t limit her strong opinions to politics. Betsy Levin, a lifelong friend, recalled at Carla’s funeral that even as a kid, Carla had discerning tastes about literature, frowning on Betsy’s preference for comic books. Levin liked to think of Carla as an 18th century salon hostess because of all the stimulating seder dinners and holiday parties she threw in Washington. “Politics and Prose was her salon writ large,” she said.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Barbara Meade was the moon to Carla Cohen’s sun. Meade was an experienced bookseller by the time she was responded to Carla’s classified ad seeking a store manager. Whereas Cohen was brash and enthusiastic, Meade is thoughtful and reserved. The pair’s collaboration began in 1984 with a small shop on Connecticut Avenue in 1984 and a single part-time employee who worked the night shift. By 1989, Politics and Prose outgrew its space and relocated to its current address across the street. Police blocked off the thoroughfare as staff, friends and neighbors carried boxes of books to the new store. They added a café and doubled the store’s size during the 1990s. P&P expanded again in 2003 and now has 9,000 square feet of bookselling space, Meade says. (The average Barnes & Noble is 26,000.)

Only a few failures mark the store’s management record. Secondhand Prose, Politics and Prose’s used bookstore, lasted just two years. “We learned not to get involved in businesses we know nothing about,” Meade says. And a first attempt to sell the store so Cohen and Meade could retire famously went sour. In 2001, the pair hired Danny Gainsburg, who had owned a custom T-shirt business. Gainsburg bought a stake in the business, striking a deal to eventually take over the store. In the meantime, he would learn the ropes. But Cohen and Meade didn’t tell the staff, who bristled under Gainburg’s management style, that he was the heir apparent.

It’s a sign of the store’s iconic status that the ensuing meltdown was chronicled in The Wall Street Journal. The Journal reported that tensions boiled over when he kissed a staffer on the cheek on her birthday and she quit shortly thereafter. Cohen and Meade met with an organizational psychologist to work out the trauma, but staff would have none of it. They eventually bought back Gainburg’s stake. When I asked what lessons she learned from Gainburg mishap, Meade said “not to rush in.”

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

What P&P had figured out—better than the rest of the bookselling business—was that it’s not enough to just expect your inventory, and your staff, and your location in a book-reading ZIP code to create a community. When it first opened, Politics and Prose held five events per month. That figure doubled by 1989. But it was in 2002 that they hit what Meade calls “a tipping point.” Now the store hosts about 35 events each month. “The store has an event list of the most prominent authors of any independent bookstore in the country,” says Oren Teicher, chief executive of the American Booksellers Association. Politics and Prose holds about 400 events annually, including 50 kid-friendly ones.

The secret sauce is its mix of functions for big shots and lesser-known writers. For instance, this past month, National Book Award-winning biographer Ron Chernow and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke at the store, as did novelists Myla Goldberg and Dinaw Mengestu. Plus, the store hosts 17 book groups on topics ranging from James Joyce to graphic novels. Each group meeting usually brings in two dozen readers, Meade says, who often peruse the shelves before and after.

It looked like I stumbled upon the most popular ornithological seminar ever. Clusters of college students and office workers were milling about at 6 p.m. Friday on the steps of George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, each carrying a tome with a blue bird on the cover. They had come early to grab a seat to hear Jonathan Franzen speak about his new book, Freedom. The talk was originally scheduled for Politics and Prose, but the staff changed the venue because of the expected crowds. More than 900 people turned out.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

For authors, a nod from a place like P&P is a big deal. Writers who can’t gain an Oprah endorsement or Time magazine cover, like Franzen, have to rely on independent bookstores to generate interest. Novelist Wallace Stegner said Carla Cohen lifted his work to the national stage. Lucy Kogler, manager of Talking Leaves Books in Buffalo, N.Y., says she was a champion of first-time Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, well before the book captured critical acclaim.

But hosting and championing writers also pays off for stores. P&P’s ability to host the Franzen event—and sell 700 books as a result—represents a chunk of sales that your average shopping-mall bookstore, or Internet giant, doesn’t get. “Amazon and the Kindle don’t build community,” says Andy Shallal, owner of Busboys and Poets, the local chain of restaurants/bookstores.

It’s no wonder, then, that newer stores have sought to take P&P’s bread and butter—literature as spectacle—and render it even more spectacular, if not quite as literary. Shallal’s establishment near 14th and U streets NW, on a strip that is as hopping as upper Connecticut Avenue is sleepy, has a full-on restaurant, rather than a mere coffee shop. It hosts concerts and performances that draw a younger crowd than the generally gray-haired regulars at Politics and Prose. Busboys & Poets has a staff of five planners who schedule events at eight different spaces in three locations: the original 14th Street NW space, 5th and K streets NW, and one in Arlington’s Shirlington neighborhood. (Having been initially inspired by evocations of the African-American literary renaissance of the 1920s, Shallal is now planning a New York outpost in Harlem.) Unlike Politics and Prose, Busboys & Poets charges for many of its events, $4 a head on open-mic poetry night or, recently, $50 per person for a dance party celebrating a new book from Alice Walker and $70 per person if you wanted a signed copy. Bookselling is a smaller part of this mix. The bookstores in Shallal’s establishments are run by a non-profit, Teaching for Change. The book part of the business has been constant, but not growing, he says. Where Cohen used to speak reverentially about reading, Shallal thinks most of his customers don’t actually read what they buy. “They put them on a shelf. They just want a reminder of the experience,” he says.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

All the same, Busboys and Poets may represent a vision of bookselling’s future. Since he opened his third Busboys and Poets in a Mount Vernon Triangle condo project in 2008, Shallal says he received about 20 offers from developers to operate at various other locations. Busboys & Poets has 800 square feet of bookselling space, which is less than one-tenth of Politics and Prose’s space, and offers some progressive titles you may not find at Politics and Prose. But it’s telling that Shallal talks about dining, an activity you can’t do electronically, when he celebrates the community that he’s brought together. “In Washington, you rarely see blacks and whites eating together,” he says. “Busboys & Poets has that.”

I went to the 14th Street NW Busboys and Poets on a Friday night in October for dinner. My table wedged between a white hipster couple and a group of four young African-American women in the back of the restaurant. The scene was diverse and vibrant, especially compared with the older, whiter crowd at Politics and Prose. But from the restaurant, you couldn’t tell Busboys & Poets had a bookstore. After dinner, I squeezed into the stacks to avoid the line of people waiting for a table. There were no handy staff recommendations posted under the books, like Politics and Prose has, and no quiet place to browse before buying. The book section felt like a kiosk.

Spectacle has always been a part of savvy bookselling. “It’s not like a book’s ending is any better if you buy it at Politics and Prose or pick it up off a skid at Costco,” says Teicher of the American Booksellers Association, justifying the need for stores to do more than sell books. He remembers that Politics and Prose used to hawk book-themed trips to customers. Other indies are hosting summer literary day camp for kids. Read All Over, a stage and independent bookstore in Fredericksburg, Va., recently had punk-rock bands perform in front of displays of the Curious George children’s book series and etiquette guides. “The event was a success,” says proprietor Paul Cymrot, who also owns used bookstore Riverby Books in Fredericksburg and Capitol Hill, which frequently has musicians play outside its storefronts.

Shallal is not interested in buying Politics and Prose. He hopes the new owners wouldn’t change a thing. “It’s an institution in this city and must be preserved,” he says.

Politics and Prose has planned a memorial for Carla Cohen on Nov. 21. But discussions about the store’s future have already started again. Meade and Goldberg huddled with Cohen’s husband and son on Oct. 22 to discuss what happens next. They agreed to schedule in-person meetings with the finalists and exchange financial information with them. “The earliest the process could be completed is the spring, but that is not a deadline,” David Cohen says. It’s harder to conduct the owner search during the holiday season, Aaron Cohen says, which is the busiest time for the store. “The sale is going to be successful,” Meade says. “But I don’t know the timeframe.”

So far, there’s little sign of an exodus. Veteran staffers, such as book buyer Mark LaFramboise, plan to stay at the store if the new owners want them. There are examples of independent bookstores that changed ownership and were updated in ways that clicked. Jeff Mayersohn and his wife, Linda Seamonson, bought the independent Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., from its long-time owner in 2008. They have increased sales by adding a delivery service that brings books to customers’ homes by bicycle, and a printing press that can create a paperback book from millions of on-demand titles in about 4 minutes; they’ll soon launch an image-heavy website that tries to recreate the store’s browsing experience online.

The day Carla Cohen died I went to Politics and Prose to see if there would be any mourners assembled. I wanted to witness how the community Carla had built would react to her loss. A laminated sign announcing her death was posted on the door. The store was quiet and cozy as about a dozen customers filtered through the shop that Monday, which was Columbus Day, a federal holiday. An old, balding man in a pink dress shirt was sleeping in the overstuffed chair by the art section. A display of books about Facebook and the power of social networks was showcased in the front window. A thirty-something blonde plucked down some cash for a novel she had pulled from shelf of staff recommendations. The clerk smiled, took her money and waved goodbye as she left.