Politics & Prose Engages the Chevy Chase Community and Beyond


The family of four team members made room around the table for their newest member, Lou, as they waited for the first ever NERDS! Trivia Night to begin Saturday, Feb. 16 at 7:30pm in the lower level of Politics & Prose. Presented by both Politics & Prose and the Modern Times coffeehouse located in the lower level of the bookstore, the trivia night had more of a turnout than many people expected.
“We were hoping for ten teams,” said Lacey Dunham, Politics & Prose marketing director and NERDS co-host said. “We actually have 35.”
Two tables were set up in front of the wall shelves labeled SALE, in the small reading room beside the Children’s Books section. But, by 7:00, the bookstore employees realized they were going to need more room as college students, grandparents, neighbors and new-timers crammed into the space. By 7:15, the sales books reading room, coffeehouse, and children’s reading room were all filled with teams eagerly waiting for the trivia night to begin.
Dunham and co-host Stefan Ducich, events coordinator of Modern Times, explained the design and rules of the trivia event. Teams could only have five members (a special exception was made of team of six 13-year-olds). There would be three rounds with 10 questions each. Cellphones could not be used. Additional points would be given to the team with the best name, as determined by Dunham and Ducich.
As major bookstore chains close shop, move online, or go bankrupt, Politics & Prose, an independent bookstore tucked away in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of Washington, D.C., remains one of the most prominent bookstores in the city.
“We’re in a good position,” said Dunham. “Our sales are consistent at a time when a lot of chains and indies are closing and as publishing companies are merging.”
Unlike what the name suggests, Politics & Prose, located at 5015 Connecticut Ave, NW, offers a wide variety of literature, including all genres, as well as a calendar filled with events, author readings, and guest speakers.
“We have about 500 reading events per year,” said Dunham. Dunham says the store has had author events since the store’s opening. Although she doesn’t know when the exact 500 tipping point occurred, she believes they’ve had it for about a decade.
When the store opened in the fall of 1984, bookstore chains had yet to gain a foothold in communities nationwide. Carla Cohen knew she wanted to open a bookstore with a name that embodied the essence of the city of Washington. She and co-owner Barbara Meade settled on Politics & Prose. At the time of their opening, there were only three people employed at the bookstore – Cohen and Meade full time and another co-worker part time during the evenings.
Over the years, the bookstore has grown. According to the store’s website, Politics & Prose now occupies over 8,000 square feet of sales space and almost 14,000 feet of business space, including offices and a café. The store now employs over 50 people. Part of its growth is credited to the 1999 merger between Politics & Prose and the neighborhood children’s bookstore, Cheshire Cat.
Frequent customer, Stephanie Fouch, who lives in the neighborhood, has shopped at the bookstore for at least 20 years.
“It was much smaller when I first visited,” Fouch explained. “But I keep coming back because they continue to highlight authors who I think people in the neighborhood or those concerned with current events care about.”
In 2011, Politics & Prose was purchased by Bradley Graham, a journalist at the Washington Post and his wife, Lissa Muscatine, a former speech writer for Hillary Clinton. In February of 2012, GQ ranked the couple #50 in its article on The 50 Most Powerful People in Washington.
Graham said that when he became interested in purchasing the bookstore, he began researching other successful bookstore owners and managers around the country.
“The common thread that I found,” Graham said, “was that they were all rooted in their communities. Their success depended on the loyalty of their customers. That also has been the story of [Politics & Prose].”
Although leaving the identity of the bookstore intact, with the new ownership did come some new changes.
“We now have a print-on-demand machine,” said Marshall Edwards, of College Park, Md., who has worked at the bookstore for seven years.
Opus is the new expresso book machine that is able to print books that are out of print, yet still available online, as well as self-published books.
According to Edwards, the number of trips during the year has tripled under the new managers. Traditionally, the bookstore has taken interested customers to Fallingwater, in Pennsylvania. Now the store is expanding to Seneca Quarry, the opening Nationals game, and two formal trips to Paris this summer.
There has also been an increase in renovations.
“The new owners haven’t been afraid to spend money to improve the store,” Edwards explained. “They aren’t afraid to spend money to add more books, more chairs for events, and to make the floor design more shop-able.”
Most customers and employees agree that the atmosphere at Politics & Prose exudes community over business.
“It feels more like a library than a corporation,” said Alexandra Perrotti, of Columbia Heights. She first came to Politics & Prose about three years ago to hear a guest speaker. “The staff here really knows what they’re talking about when it comes to the books they sell.”
Graham echoed her sentiments in his description of the bookstore of the future. “A bookstore needs to remember to be more than a retail establishment. It should be a center for culture and community and must make itself interesting.”
He believes the challenge for Politics & Prose will be in continuing to find new ways to make the store a valued destination for its customers.
The literature-based events, like the increase in literary classes, offsite happy hours, and trips, seem to be the key to the store’s continued success.
Of the trivia night’s winning team, Maegan Needs to Break Up with Her Boyfriend, only one member, Catholic University student, Christine, had ever visited the store before. The team members each won 20 percent off on any book in the store, a 12 oz. bag of coffee, and a five dollar off coupon at the coffeehouse.
“It was a lot of fun,” said teammate and fellow student AJ. “We’re definitely coming back.”