Carla Cohen, 1936-2010

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 11 2010 6:30 PM

Carla Cohen, 1936-2010

This is a guest post from Slate's Timothy Noah:

I don't know anyone —c ertainly no president or mayor who did more to make Washington, D.C., a more congenial place to live than Carla Cohen, who died today at 74. Cohen was, with Barbara Meade, co-owner of Politics and Prose , an independent bookstore in the city's upper northwest section that, in the 26 years since its founding, has served as a sort of people's athenaeum, open to anyone who loves books (and even a few who don't, particularly, but could use a quiet, pleasant place to meet friends, read the newspaper, or get a little work done). These past few years have seen the closing of many cherished independent bookstores Dutton's in Brentwood, Calif., Micawber's in Princeton, N.J.; the list goes on and on but Politics and Prose has managed to thrive in a city not known to harbor any special devotion to littrachoor . That's partly because Cohen and Meade catered shrewdly to the city's many political journalists and public-policy wonks. But Politics and Prose was not, as its name might suggest, a specialty store devoted solely to books by and for such people; that niche was already filled by Sidney Kramer Books, a delightful downtown shop that, sadly, closed its doors in 1997. Cohen and Meade operated a shop political junkies could love, but the place was equally welcome to apolitical readers of literary fiction, biography, history, literary criticism, the history of science, and any number of other subspecialties. If you were a book lover, Politics and Prose drew you in, and if you weren't, Politics and Prose could make you one. And, I hope, will continue to for many years. (Cohen and Meade put the place up for sale in June.)

I got to know Cohen five years ago, when I published a posthumous anthology of writings by my late wife, Marjorie Williams (herself a great fan of Politics and Prose; much of the book was written in its basement cafe). Quite unexpectedly, the book ended up on the extended New York Times best-seller list, and no one involved in its marketing played a more vital role in making that happen than Carla, who decided early on that The Woman at the Washington Zoo deserved special attention. Her efforts on its behalf were too numerous to recount, but among them was an interview with me that she posted on the store's Web site. Her questions were more insightful and less sentimental than any others I fielded in publicizing that book and left little doubt in my mind that Carla would have made a fabulous book critic or host of her own highbrow chat-show on NPR.

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Hundreds of others could relate similar anecdotes about Carla taking special care to make sure this or that book lacking in publicity muscle reached its rightful audience, and I'm sure we'll be hearing from them in the coming days. When Carla touted a book, she sounded less like a businesswoman than like an intelligent and gregarious enthusiast. That turned out to be a smart business practice, and her discerning sincerity goes a long way toward explaining why Politics and Prose succeeded while so many other independent bookstores failed. It is difficult to imagine Politics and Prose continuing as a beloved Washington institution without her, but the shrewdness and vitality and unending effort with which she and Meade built the place give it plenty of momentum, even in this age of proliferating Kindles and iPads. I own both gadgets, but I haunt Politics and Prose as much as I ever did. There's nothing like a really good bookstore, and there was nobody quite like Carla Cohen. I miss her already.

Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.