retail news in context, analysis with attitude

There was an obituary the other day in the Washington Post for Carla Cohen, the co-owner of Politics and Prose, a celebrated and influential independent bookstore on Connecticut Avenue in the nation’s Capital.

A former Carter Administration official who opened the store after she left the government in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected, Cohen wanted to have the kind of bookstore that she liked to shop in. Here’s how the Post described the store:

“Politics and Prose 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.’

“In an effort to remain afloat in a sea of Internet booksellers and big-box chains, the store has also become a sort of progressive community center. A basement coffee shop serves steaming lattes and hosts a regular open-mike session for local musicians. The store sponsors panel discussions and more than 100 book clubs.

"’It's a place where books are not commodities - they're something else,’ said longtime Washington reporter Susan Stamberg. ‘You feel you're with like-minded people, people who share your passions and your interests.’

“Perhaps most of all, the store has become known for its steady stream of author talks, which has given scads of local writers - Seymour Hersh, Judith Viorst and Jim Lehrer, among dozens more - a platform unlike any other to air their ideas and promote their books.”

In other words, success doesn’t always come from being the biggest, or the most ubiquitous or the lowest priced on everything. It can come from not being ordinary, not being predictable, not being the purveyor of commodities - whether those commodities are products or ideas.

It can come from being truly different.

And that’s out Wednesday Eye-Opener.

- Kevin Coupe
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