Aaron Cohen still buys books. You know: The kind you can hold. He purchased at least two last year—-Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom and Howard Jacobson‘s The Finkler Question. But Cohen—-as in his mother Carla Cohen, the co-owner of beloved D.C. bookstore Politics and Prose who died last October—-bought those titles because he enjoyed reading digital versions of them first. On his blog last week, Cohen noted his first purchase of an e-book from Google—-before that, he’d bought 37 through Amazon and seven through Apple. Then he reflected on his dead-tree legacy (he grew up in “a 4-story house lined with overflowing bookshelves on much of the wall space”) and his digital tastes:
Initially I felt guilt, but used my grueling travel schedule to rationalize such disloyalty. Later, as we embarked on the Politics and Prose sales process I knew habitual ebook use would inform our process. The more I read, the more I could entertain Mom during her illness. What comforted her most was talking about books and the business. She smiled when I told her about my enthusiasm for the Ipad Always she hoped I would embrace her taste and finally put down the remote control.
But if the son of a successful and high-minded bookseller is mostly consuming books via his Kindle, what chance does a brick-and-mortar seller, no matter how august, have? “There are many many people my age and younger than me who don’t share my sentiment,” Cohen tells Arts Desk. “You have to remember: I’m an Internet executive.”
Certainly, there are still plenty of people who buy books from Politics and Prose, which is currently up for sale. In his cover story in Washington City Paper last October, Tom Anderson reported that the store did $7 million in total sales the previous fiscal year—-this is an era in which book retailers large and small are disappearing. Chalk that up to cachet—-there remains no better place to see a book talk in D.C., nor a store with more knowledgeable sellers. It’s earned respect. Anderson writes:
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.
Sales were up last year at Politics and Prose, Cohen says, but “banking on the ability to sell a relatively low-margin product that has technology alternatives will not be sustainable for the next 27 years,” he writes. The new owners, whoever they end up being, may sell plenty of books, but they’ll have to find other revenue streams, Cohen says: Adult education, maybe. Selling wine at events, or even some tickets to events. Digital sales, even.
And although he felt some guilt, Cohen’s first e-book purchase—-he’s pretty sure it was Predictably Irrational by Dan Arieli—-wasn’t quite a Rubicon moment. “My reading’s up,” he says. “What really made me happy is I could say that to my mom before she died.”‘
Photo by Darrow Montgomery