Navigate to News section

Reflections on a Book Paradise

Politics & Prose shops for new owners

Marc Tracy
June 23, 2010

The future of beloved Washington, D.C., bookstore Politics & Prose is up in the air since its founders announced they are selling it. This story is hugely important in the D.C. area. It is also of almost astonishing importance in the literary world. “The influence of P and P on the entire book publishing industry is immense,” says a literary agent and hopeful new investor. (As an intern at one New York-based literary journal, it was my responsibility to regularly call dozens of independent bookstores around the country and ask if they needed more copies; Politics & Prose was distinguished on the list by the exclamation mark next to its name.)

But this is also a Jewish story: Because of (for all I know, and assume) the two founders, Barbara Meade and Carla Cohen; because prominent among those hoping to buy the place are Jewish journalists Franklin Foer, the New Republic editor, and Jeffrey Goldberg, the Atlantic national reporter and Tablet Magazine contributing editor; and because of, as Goldberg put it, “our Jewish customers, of which I’ve noticed a couple.” Substitute “Zabar’s,” and you will catch Goldberg’s understatement. (This is only a small part of it, but the store is in—or incredibly near, I’m not sure—the neighborhood of Forest Hills, which gained the moniker “Hanukkah Heights” when many Jews settled there after being kept out of what were then more affluent neighborhoods.)

The bookstore is a delightful, sun-filled space. It has its own separate room for fiction and poetry; the most comprehensive reading series of any bookstore, New York ones included; a generous children’s section; a fantastic café, where you can always count on running into someone you know (and which ingeniously puts its Splenda in a pourable container, as one would normal sugar); and just the most delightful, easygoing aura you could ever hope to come across.

For these reasons and more, it made an indelible mark on its customers through the years. “When I was in high school and couldn’t get a date on Friday night, which was just about every Friday night,” says Foer, “I would spend my time in the aisles of the store.”

Forgive the indulgence—and without delving too deeply into my no doubt equally pathetic high school track record—but may I co-sign Foer’s sentiment? You see, I am from Bethesda, Maryland; my house was a seven-minute car ride—or, as I frequently preferred, a 20-minute bike ride—from the place.

Politics & Prose is where my father took me every Sunday after Hebrew School, which was slightly farther south on Connecticut Avenue: We would listen to BBC’s “My Word” in the car, stop at the bookstore, pick up bread from the neighboring Marvelous Market, and head home. (My father may have the stronger claim to the place, if only because he grew up less than half a mile from where it now stands.) I learned to peruse bookstore shelves in its shelves. Before the days of Amazon, or at least its prevalence, it was always the place that, somehow, against-the-odds, had the book you were looking for. I read my favorite chapter of Ulysses (“Hades,” if you must know) in one of its impossibly comfortable chairs. Writers of books frequently claim to hate readings, but I cannot imagine a more blissful experience than doing a reading there.

I do not consider it a trip home unless I have spent a morning caffeinating and working at the downstairs café among the American University law students; graduates of my high school, and, sure, other high schools; the mayor (he dropped by a couple years ago when I was there, don’t remember why); people like my parents; and, sometimes, my parents. If you are an even slightly faithful reader of The Scroll, you have read posts that were written there.

What am I trying to say? No matter if Goldberg describes the city as a “wasteland” (dude, didn’t you grow up on Long Island?), D.C. has a wealth of culture, Jewish and otherwise. But there is no sense even defining the word—and no sense thinking it Jewish—if Politics & Prose is not thought of as a center of culture, and of Jewish culture: A means to culture, and a cultural end unto itself.

In other words, next time you are in the area, I encourage a visit. If you are in town the weekend of the Fourth, look for me there.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.