Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade in their bookstore Politics and Prose. Photograph by Chris Leaman.
Carla Cohen died yesterday. For twenty-six years she and her partner, Barbara Meade, ran what was and is the best bookstore in Washington, DC: Politics and Prose. They did it by being tireless and intrepid. They opened a café when that wasn’t an obvious thing for a serious bookstore to do. The café remains a success. (They also opened a used bookstore, which wasn’t.) They were pioneers of social media avant la lettre (my parents still forward me their newsletters), and they earned the highest respect of publishers—because their customers trusted them and loved them. At the annual booksellers’ convention, Carla was royalty; it was a mark of favor for a young editor to be taken to meet her. Of course, if the young editor had grown up in northwest DC, he already had met her. There was a limit to how bookish you could be there and not know Carla; that limit was not high.
Carla and Babara turned a profit at a time when most independents folded. They hired and trained an expert staff. They read everything. Most of all, they promoted excellent books. Whoever buys the store—which Barbara and Carla put up for sale this summer—will be buying an outsize piece of Washington’s mental life. No doubt Barbara will choose the best possible successor, yet neither she nor Carla can be replaced.