Spotlight on Small Businesses: Politics & Prose


The bookstore is known for its robust politics section. Photo: Sofia Gaviria ’23.

Politics & Prose, an independent bookstore with multiple locations in Washington, has gained attention in recent years due to ongoing labor organizing efforts.

Founders Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade opened the first Politics & Prose on Connecticut Avenue in 1984, and the bookstore has since expanded to include two additional branches at The Wharf and Union Market, occupying over 16,000 square feet of total space with over 100 employees. The store features all genres of literature, including a robust section covering politics and current events.

Journalist and writer Bradley Graham and journalist and speechwriter Lissa Muscatine bought Politics & Prose in 2011, following Cohen’s death in 2010. According to its website, the store’s mission is “cultivating community and strengthening the common good through books, programs, and a respectful exchange of ideas.”

As a longtime institution and prominent bookstore in Washington, Politics & Prose is known for its diverse selection of literature, variety of programs and events and helpful staff members ready to recommend books to customers. In addition, the store is home to The Den, a coffeehouse and wine bar that serves breakfast items, sandwiches and soups.

Events at the bookstore include writing classes, book discussion groups and author talks, with at least one every night and frequent off-site events.

Despite its reputation as a progressive bookstore, Politics & Prose faced backlash after declining to recognize a workers’ union in December 2021, when employees filed a petition for an election for the president of the workers’ union, joining a growing labor movement of workers across the country. Reasons for the decision to unionize included low wages, understaffing, limited benefits and the desire to improve workplace conditions. Concerns were exacerbated during the pandemic, as employees were overloaded with work due to the staffing shortage.

“I’ve had such wonderful times here,” employee Isa Salazar said in an interview with the Washington Post. “I just feel like the love that we have for reading and for book culture is not something that should be taken advantage of,” she added.

[I] feel like the love that we have for reading and for book culture is not something that should be taken advantage of.

— Isa Salazar

Despite their initial resistance, owners Graham and Muscatine later stated that they would voluntarily recognize the union, and in January 2022, Politics & Prose became the first unionized bookstore in Washington.

“We remain committed to providing a workplace in which all employees are valued and respected, and we look forward to continuing to work together with our staff members to shape the future of P&P,” Graham and Muscatine wrote on the store’s website following their announcement.

Politics & Prose gained national acclaim following the unionization, with employees celebrating the success of their efforts. The store joined the small subset of unionized independent bookstores in a sector that has historically lacked unions.

“We are proud to join the growing movement of booksellers and baristas across the country who have unionized their workplaces,” the bookstore’s organizing committee stated in a Washington Post article. “Forming our union has not only served as an affirmation of our shared values within the Politics & Prose community, [but] it will also strengthen our workplace and ensure the long-term success of our beloved community hub,” the committee concluded.