It’s a typical Thursday afternoon at Politics and Prose, Chevy Chase’s tony bookstore. Bespectacled boomers leaf through signed copies of Norman Mailer’s Picasso and buy “Madeline” books for their kids. In the store’s coffee shop, a few Xers scribble in their notebooks and fortify themselves with the requisite latte, while artsy elder women—replete with silver hair, black skirts, and flowing scarves—caress their loot as they take a break from holiday shopping.

And two men who have become rather infamous here sit awkwardly at the counter. Both middle-aged—one in a shiny suit, the other in an ill-fitting herringbone sports jacket—they look like they’d prefer a dark pub to this faux bohemia. They too drink designer coffees (hazelnut and emerald cream are their favorites), but with the solemnity of guys who’ve got a job to do. They are John Brown and Michael Fusco, representatives of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400, and they say that in a week, Politics and Prose will be a union bookstore.

“We’re absolutely confident of victory,” says Fusco. “It is unusual for us to be contacted by an independent bookstore. But whether it’s unusual or not, we are dedicated to organizing the unorganized.”

Unionizing an upscale bookstore with a mere 37 workers? Doesn’t a local with some 400,000 members have bigger fish to fry? We may expect union battles in steel plants, mines, and hotels, but the aisles between “New Fiction” and “Poetry” seem an unlikely place to do battle. And in an era when small independent bookstores are getting squeezed, losing more and more of their market share to huge corporate behemoths like Borders, Crown, and Barnes & Noble, it seems strange that a highly regarded mom-and-mom operation would become a target for unionization. If Local 400’s campaign succeeds, Politics and Prose would be the only union bookshop in the District.

In the 11 years since they opened Politics and Prose, owners Barbara Meade and Carla Cohen have garnered the kind of following reserved for local heroes. They have created a literary community center on Connecticut Avenue, and their benevolence toward, and keen interest in, staffers is legendary even outside the neighborhood.

But a nasty and rather inexplicable rift has developed between the owners and some of their workers, one that can be traced back to last summer. When the store took over the building next door and doubled in size, the staff and management of P&P (the store’s nickname) became overwhelmed with the chaos of expansion. Cohen and Meade seemed less accessible, employees say. Small, even petty, grievances festered. The informal, cooperative store became sorely divided. In October, a group of employees asked for Local 400’s help, hoping the union could bring structure and security to their jobs. On Dec. 8, the employees will vote on whether to join Local 400. Simple majority rules.

These days, Cohen and Meade can’t spare much time for magnanimous management. They are too busy with their attorneys drawing up paperwork and trying to figure out how a small cadre of employees got bit by the union bug. Sitting at their cluttered desks with a profoundly wounded air about them, Cohen and Meade struggle to explain their feelings. Cohen, a robust woman dressed in a long black-and-green skirt and chunky-heeled shoes, is so viscerally upset she can barely sputter, “This is hard for us to understand….We are bewildered.”

Meade, dressed in earthy tones of olive and taupe, acts as the duo’s measured mouthpiece. “Philosophically, I think our employees and we are pro-union. I think our young employees—most tend to be under 30—are young, liberal, and idealistic. We look upon ourselves as middle-aged, liberal, and realistic….We obviously feel that in a store of this size—Carla and I both work 55 hours a week, we’re here all the time—we have our office door open. It’s not like we’re Safeway.”

“We’re puzzled,” says Cohen. “We have no idea how this started.”

Cohen and Meade opened P&P in 1984 because both loved books and were looking to find a vocation for the second half of their lives. Neither was particularly interested in business for business’ sake—or in management. Former employees say the proprietors treated the staff like their own children. They pay for health insurance (employees kick in $25 per month). They allow workers to take unpaid sabbaticals. Christmas bonuses are generous, from $100 to $1,500. Former employees remember them as kind souls who have given even rank slackers and chronic alcoholics a second chance. “I have never come into contact with owners who have cared more for their employees,” says Matt Weiss, the store’s former financial manager, who left in April to start his own business.

P&P’s owners start their employees at $6.50 an hour, and after three months’ probation raise the wages to between $7 and $7.50. (A few employees have done the math on their potential union contract and calculated that they would earn much less than they do now.)

Still, the center did not hold when P&P expanded last summer. The store experienced tremendous turnover: Seventy-five percent of its employees joined in 1995, and a beloved floor manager left. Christian McMillen, a P&P staffer since 1992, eschews the idea of unionizing but acknowledges the place has undergone “extreme chaos” this fall. “The store was going through obvious growing pains,” he says. Most of the beleaguered staffers, McMillen adds, haven’t worked long enough to know that things do get better, that the store does bounce back. “Barbara and Carla have been benevolent owners and managers,” he says, but he’s afraid that rapport will get lost in the bureaucracy of unionization.

The chaos soured relations between owners and staff. Some employees found that the old P&P informality suddenly seemed disingenuous—more a case of benign neglect—in a much larger store. There was more room, more books, more sales, and bigger headaches, and they wanted more formality in the wake of so much change: Employees baffled the owners by asking for a time clock to punch in and out; the book-handlers wanted belts to protect their lower backs; others requested more consistent breaks and more timely evaluations.

What union representative Brown calls the “disconnect” between management and staff led to employee powwows at the end of the night shift. “We got to talking in the parking lot,” recalls Rudy Von Abele, a 27-year-old who has worked at P&P for three years. One night in October the group went back inside to the coffeehouse and vented up a storm. “We stayed here until 2 a.m. that night,” Von Abele says. Someone brought up the idea of contacting a union, and the group became more spirited, directed, and excited. “There definitely was some romanticizing of the union,” says Von Abele.

Initially in favor of unionizing, Von Abele has since changed his mind. “We were all in favor of worker organization, in theory. We thought maybe it could work for us. But now I feel we didn’t try hard enough to tell Barbara and Carla what was on our mind. We were carried away by the momentum….It took on a life of its own.”

It sure did. No one will say who contacted the local, but within a few weeks of that late-night session, union reps Fusco and Brown were working the coffeehouse and stacks, caucusing and schmoozing. On Nov. 8, 25 of 37 employees signed cards that authorized the union to file a petition to begin the process of unionizing P&P.

“They felt that there’s a lot of chaos, no real structure for breaks, or a break room,” says Brown. “There are health and safety issues and issues over scheduling and fairness. These employees have a high regard for Carla and Barbara…but they need some reasonable resolution to problems.”

“The whole time I’ve been here I’ve witnessed numerous attempts to talk to management flop,” says Charlene Lockwood, a self-possessed 27-year-old who has been working at P&P since last February. “A union is beneficial for an organization when all else has failed.”

In the weeks leading up to the Dec. 8 vote, the atmosphere at P&P has been poisonous, polluted by gossip about the owners’ intentions and by alleged intimidation campaigns by both sides. The National Labor Relations Board is investigating charges made on behalf of employees against Cohen and Meade. The nature of the charges are confidential while they are under investigation, according to Brown and Fusco. But Brown says that Cohen and Meade “know who the [pro-union] people are and they are making their lives difficult.”

“There have been vague threats,” adds Fusco. “All of a sudden they are singling people out for evaluations.” At least one charge involves an alleged threat to dismiss an employee who was vocally pro-union. Rumors of these charges have further divided the staff.

The destiny of P&P is no longer in Cohen and Meade’s hands. Two of the District’s most resourceful women, who have been known to borrow money from customers when they needed cash flow, are stymied this time. It’s unclear how much the union label will affect P&P’s bottom line. Some prominent independent bookstores that have been unionized, including the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., and Green Apple in San Francisco, Calif., are certainly still in business. But P&P’s union opponents say that under the union, the store will become a bureaucratic nightmare more vulnerable than ever to the superstores.

And friends and former workers say the drastic step their employees took has certainly taken the wind out of Cohen and Meade’s sails. Meade says she and Cohen want to talk to their staff about grievances, but it’s too late. In fact, now that the unionization campaign has begun, it is illegal for either of the owners to ask an employee any leading questions such as “What’s wrong?” or “How do you feel?”

“I’m sure this is hurting Carla and Barbara personally more than anything,” says Weiss. “I don’t think this will really hurt them financially, but that’s not what they care about the most. They do this because they love people more than books. This must be killing them.” —Nora FitzGerald