Last night, I went to our extraordinary neighborhood book store, Politics and Prose, to hear historian Robert Massie talk and answer questions about his new biography of Catherine the Great. Unfortunately, I never got to see Massie. Not even a glimpse. If you asked me to describe Massie physically this morning, I wouldn’t know what to say. Tall or short? Don’t know. Gray haired or bald? No idea. Heavy or slim? You get the picture.
This is not because I wasn’t at the store, or because Massie failed to show. It is simply because there were so many people there that, when I arrived fifteen minutes before his presentation, there not only were no seats available, but there were so many people standing in back and around the sides of the 100 or so seats that the shop sets up that even a few of the podium was foreclosed. I went into the adjoining fiction room, much less crowded and ten degrees cooler, sat on the ground, and listened.
Several weeks ago, when we went to listen to Israeli author Amos Oz speak about his latest book of short stories, I thought that the crowd was at capacity. Clearly, I was wrong – and I wonder what the crowds will be for the remaining three nights this week when Chris Matthews speaks about his new Kennedy book, Ann Beattie about her new book focusing on Pat Nixon, or (and this should be the mother of all crowds) Walter Isaacson talking about Steve Jobs. Hopefully, the fire marshall will stay away.
Under its new ownership, the store appears to be extremely healthy. The new owners look like they are doing everything right. Their author events obviously have something to do with the success; they have increased their frequency from a one-a-day event to often multiple events every day. From their printed schedule, November had 42 events, and that was (believe it or not) with a five day Thanksgiving break. And the authors listed above are not the only well known ones giving readings: this month alone saw writers like Harry Belefonte, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Tom Brokaw, Hon. John Paul Stevens, Umberto Eco, Joan Didion, William S. Cohen, Michael Dirda, Michael Ondaatje, and Adam Gopnik present (a few of them were co-sponsored by Sixth and I Synagogue, and had the readings take place there or at the Avalon Theater; you expect bigger crowds at those, such as Stevens and Eco).
Of course other things help Politics and Prose. It is located in a neighborhood of readers (or at least book buyers). The Borders in Friendship Heights closed. The basement cafe serves good food, and allows you to sit there forever with your laptop or your friends. They sponsor books clubs and more book clubs. The new owners, former journalists, are locals with their hands on the pulse of the neighborhood. And so forth. But nevertheless it is quite amazing at a time when so many book stores are struggling or closing, that Politics and Prose just seems to move right along.
It shows that it can be done. And hopefully that it will continue.