DC's Most Insufferable Bookstore Generates Last Year's Worst Piece of Journalism


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In the end, it wasn't even close. The other day I was mulling over what I thought was the worst piece of journalism of the year 2000. Not surprisingly, The New York Times was at the top of the list, for either their bogus story on how federal agencies and public parks were rejecting the Boy Scouts for homophobia or the example-parched article about how Jeb Bush orchestrated his brother W's victory.


But in the end, The Washington Post broke the tape. It's often been noted that the Post is riding on fumes, still buoyed, barely, by Watergate. As someone who writes for the paper on a semiregular basis, I don't know if that's entirely fair. I do, however, know that something is desperately wrong with the "Style" section. Or at least the front page of it.


On Dec. 28 the above-the-fold piece in "Style" was about the bookstore Politics and Prose. Politics and Prose?or P&P?is one of these crunchy independent bookstores that liberals adore. The kind with a coffeeshop, epicene employees who are a notch above Tower Records studied grubbiness but still too "alternative" to get real jobs, and a lousy selection. Politics and Prose is all these things and nothing more. But don't tell that to Linton Weeks, who wrote the piece, called "Biography of a Bookstore." To fully appreciate the enormity of its awfulness, I'm afraid it's necessary to quote several paragraphs from the opening:


Been damn hard, me being a successful independent bookstore for the past 16 years and all.

First the chains?Crown, Barnes & Noble, Borders?shook me up. Then the Internet. But bookselling seems to have evened out and things are looking up. Every morning I open my doors, let 700 folks rummage and rifle through my stacks during the day. They pace my aisles, browse through my variety, lap up lattes in my cafe and increase their health, wealth, wit and power?word, spiritual, sexual.


Like a book on a shelf, I sit between Sheffield liquor store and a CVS pharmacy on Connecticut Avenue NW. My canvas awning is dark green and the words above my door, Politics & Prose, are deep purple. I am owned by Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade. I am filled with shelves; the shelves are filled with books; the books are filled with ideas. Of all stripes: liberal, conservative, kooky, kinky, cogent, cautious, cockamamie.


At this point in history, I am at the center of the reading universe. I am arguably the polestar of the most literate people in the nation's most literate city?Washington. Readers come "looking for a book my friend told me about" and to meet other readers and to make new friends who will tell them about new books to read. Writers come to meet other writers and for the rare opportunity to commune?face to face?with their readers. This makes me independent. Want to know what makes me successful?


There is a moment in one of the early Beavis and Butt-head episodes where the two are sitting on their sofa watching videos and making scalding comments about their lameness. Suddenly "Ice Ice Baby" appears on the screen. Beavis and Butt-head simply look at each other, silent, then turn the channel. When I read Weeks' opening, I sat in stunned silence. This was not the Whitefish, MT, Whitefish Pilot. This wasn't the Georgetown Prep Little Hoya. This was The Washington Post.


It got worse. I prayed that the silly, grating affectation of writing the piece as the bookstore?and as a bookstore that's a five-year-old?was just for the lede. I thought Weeks might retreat from calling Washington the literary center of the universe. (I was born and raised in Washington and love the city, but in letters and readers we get spanked by New York; it's not even close.) I was ready to forgive him for saying that The Weekly Standard's David Brooks worked at The New Republic. I even held out hope that he might offer some criticism of P&P, which is blown regularly by Washington media elites and is long overdue for a dressing down. I thought he might at least nail the P&P magazine selection, the worst I've ever seen. (I don't shop at Borders because I'm right-wing, but because I can get Down Beat and the Irish Times there.)


Instead, Weeks offers graf after torturous graf of dull minutiae, some of it downright Pinteresque:


In the coffee shop, [co-owner Barbara] Meade eats a slice of pineapple carrot bread and drinks a Diet Coke. [Co-owner Carla] Cohen orders a chai and half a sandwich. Listen to them and you may wonder how they ever get anything accomplished.

They discuss the plight of Denver bookseller Joyce Meskis, who is engaged in a First Amendment battle. Drug enforcement agents believe that an illegal drug manufacturer may have bought how-to books from Meskis's store. She is refusing to release sales records. Talk about independence.


"I'd do the same thing," says Meade.


Cohen shakes her head. "I wouldn't sell 'The Anarchist Cookbook.'"


"We've special-ordered it before," Meade says.


Cohen shakes her head again, "I don't think we should."


They look at each other. Nothing happens. Lights dim.


Last fall Matt Drudge tried to arrange a reading at P&P for his Drudge Manifesto. Cohen refused, calling Drudge "a rumormonger and a troublemaker." Weeks notes that "Drudge saw Cohen's refusal as politically motivated"?duh?then reports Cohen's reply: "What an obnoxious person."


And that's it. No examination of the politics of Politics and Prose and whether the store is the most overrated institution in Washington. Not even a shot at Drudge. Just more of the same precious pretentiousness, more of which Politics and Prose and its fans do not need.


"Books have brought these people here," Weeks concludes. "Books have made these people who they are?brainy and bespectacled. Their lives have been strengthened, weakened, beaten, bettered, bewildered and enriched by books.


"They obviously can't get enough. From the shelves the authors continue to cry out. Read me! Read me! Read me! 'More Matter,' shouts John Updike. 'Living in Hope and History,' wails Nadine Gordimer. 'No Other Book,' Randall Jarrell calls."


What a bunch of phony bastards, adds Holden Caulfield.




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