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Politics and Prose co-owner Carla Cohen has died

Emma Brown

Update: The full obituary can be viewed here.

Carla Cohen, who founded the beloved Connecticut Avenue bookstore Politics and Prose and was a driving force behind its evolution from a simple storefront into the center of Washington's literary scene, died this morning. She was 74 and had a rare cancer of the bile ducts.

News of her ill health reached customers in June, when Mrs. Cohen and co-owner Barbara Meade announced that they were putting the store up for sale.


"Whenever an institution having to do with the printed word ... is put on the auction block, there's always the fear that it is about to become a memory," wrote New Yorker political commentator Hendrik Hertzberg in June. "I pray this will not be the case with Politics & Prose, an outpost of intellectual and literary vitality that the nation's capital can ill afford to lose."

Mrs. Cohen was a former urban planner who conceived of Politics and Prose as a salon where Washington readers and writers could gather to challenge each other in discussion about the big ideas of the day -- a place that would reach beyond customers' pocketbooks and become part of their lives.

That concept proved wildly successful: Even as other independent bookshops in the District and around the country have folded under the pressure of competition from Internet booksellers and big-box chains, Politics and Prose has thrived, remaining profitable through multiple recessions and the advent of electronic books.

The store distinguished itself as the purveyor of public affairs books, literary nonfiction and other genres not known for impressive sales figures. The collection has been embraced by a particularly Washington mix of customers -- journalists, think-tankers and other book-hungry types drawn by the intersection of literature and big ideas.

"We don't have to carry anything that's just ordinary," said Mrs. Cohen, who often worked the phones and the cash register to keep tabs on what people were asking for. "We don't have a romance section."

Politics and Prose is also known for its steady stream of author talks, which has given scads of local writers a platform unlike any other to air their ideas and promote their books.

Mrs. Cohen and Meade's reach as literary tastemakers, however, reached past the leafy streets of Upper Northwest to the publishing houses of New York and beyond. Twenty-six years after it opened, Politics and Prose has become a near mandatory stop for authors promoting books on tour.

Literary luminaries John Updike and Alice Walker have spoken at the store, as have investigative reporter David Halberstam, former President Bill Clinton and photographer Annie Leibowitz.

This month, the events calendar features former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul and Haitian-born writer Edwidge Danticat, who won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2009.

Mrs. Cohen's family and Barbara Meade said they are undergoing a rigorous and methodical process to identify the next owners of Politics and Prose. Many potential buyers have already stepped forward and the next step is to winnow that group to a handful, said Meade, but the process will pause during a period of mourning for Mrs. Cohen.

By Emma Brown  | October 11, 2010; 9:57 AM ET
Categories:  Emma Brown, Washington DC-area people  | Tags:  Carla Cohen died; Carla Cohen dies; Carla Cohen obituary; Carla Cohen Politics and Prose; Carla Cohen Barbara Meade  
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