We were simply in the right place at the right time. The Kirch-Sipress family, in Washington, D.C. to visit relatives, was browsing inside Politics & Prose Books on Saturday, November 29 when President Barack Obama arrived with his two daughters, Malia, 16, and Sasha, 13, to celebrate Small Business Saturday. My daughter, Rachel Sipress, 17, had wanted to buy some French-language books. I wanted to honor in some fitting way Coffee House Press publisher Allan Kornblum, whose funeral was being held in St. Paul at that very hour. And my husband, Joel Sipress, just wanted to make sure we didn’t shop to excess, since we would soon be boarding a plane. We arrived at the store at about 11:30 a.m., prepared to do some power shopping, not knowing that we were about to rub shoulders with the First Family.
I was on the verge of suggesting, after we’d made our purchases and I’d taken a few photos, that we leave P&P and head for Tempo, a foreign-language bookstore – when I caught sight of a man with an earpiece standing guard at the store entrance. Two more men in dark suits with earpieces walked by me a minute later. Knowing that since 2011 President Obama and his daughters have visited a local D.C. bookstore on Small Business Saturday, I immediately knew what was up and informed my husband and daughter. The 10 minutes between my noting the Secret Service presence and the Obama family’s entrance into the store can only be described as surreal; time seemed to slow down as more and more customers began to realize what was going on and the comfortable buzz inside the store shifted to one of barely suppressed excitement and expectation. Customers continued to enter the store, but bags were now being searched before people were allowed inside. Many of us inside the store simply stood and watched the flurry of activity at the front entrance.
Starting Out in the Children’s Area
President Obama, accompanied by his two daughters and an entourage of security personnel, entered the store at about 12:15 p.m.; the trio immediately headed downstairs to the children’s book area. Hesitating for just a moment, Rachel and I headed after them. When we got downstairs, the Obamas were crouched in the back of the children’s book area looking at a shelf of books; a cordon of agents blocked our view of them. A bookseller and the agents told us that pictures would not be allowed in that area, so Rachel and I exited to stand in a short and narrow hallway leading to the stairs. Interestingly, the agents standing guard there were okay with us taking photographs, but told us to put away the cameras and phones if Obama stopped to shake hands with us.
About 10 minutes after he entered the children’s area, President Obama and his daughters left it to go upstairs. As the trio passed the small group lining the hallway, the president greeted us and asked, “How are you all doing?” I responded by asking, “President Obama, I hope you picked up a copy of Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson?” He stopped, turned to me, flashed that famous smile, and answered, “I did,” before mounting the stairs with his daughters following him. Malia and Sasha must have had a hand in that particular selection, or simply appreciated that I suggested a book they’d indeed picked out: both also turned to me and smiled during my brief exchange with their father. I discovered later that they selected a total of 10 children’s books while downstairs, ranging from picture books to some middle-grade novels to Woodson’s childhood memoir of shuttling between New York City and a still-segregated South Carolina.
The Obamas’ purchases from the children’s book area were (spoiler alert for anyone on the Obama family’s 2014 gift list...):
A Barnyard Collection: Click, Clack, Moo and More by Doreen Cronin, illus. by Betsy Lewin
I Spy Sticker Book and Picture Riddles by Jean Marzollo, illus. by Walter Wick
Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business by Barbara Park, illus. by Denise Brunkus
Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus by Barbara Park, illus. by Denise Brunkus
Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins
Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell
Redwall by Brian Jacques
Mossflower by Brian Jacques
Mattimeo by Brian Jacques
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
It’s obvious, perusing the list of titles, that while half of the 10 books are for readers younger than the Obama girls, and must be gifts, four of the books – Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms and the three Redwall titles by Brian Jacques – were probably purchased for Sasha. The entire Obama family might read Brown Girl Dreaming; it’s one of those rare reads appropriate for all ages.
Back on the Main Floor
By the time the Secret Service agents allowed us to ascend to the bookstore’s main floor, President Obama and his daughters were browsing in the adult nonfiction section. I observed him holding a copy of Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, so he most likely had picked it up from a display table to the right of the stairs that had stacks of hardcover fiction titles on it. The trio was assisted in their browsing by Politics & Prose co-owner Brad Graham and a few booksellers, who were all as friendly and helpful as they’d been to us earlier.
Both Obama and Malia were obviously quite engaged in checking out the offerings and seemed to have a clear idea of exactly what they wanted. Sasha seemed understandably a little disengaged while browsing the adult books – perhaps she was eager to hunker down and start reading Brian Jacques.
After holding a baby and taking a selfie with the infant’s father’s cell phone, which earned him a round of applause from customers, President Obama walked to the cash register with a basket full of books; his daughters held more books in their arms.
As President Obama stopped to shake hands, including Joel’s, the press pool of about two dozen reporters was ushered into the store to record him making his purchases. The media squeezed into the space to the right of the cash register where they snapped photos and shot video until they were ushered out a side door a few minutes later. Fortunately for me and my family, being customers, we had the run of the store (except for the children’s area) during the entire visit. While the Secret Service agents were firm in holding people back as the Obamas shopped, they were also kind and highly professional at all times.
Overheard at the Cash Register
While the president’s purchases were processed and bagged, my husband stood close enough to hear him bantering with the two booksellers attending to him at the cash register, asking them if he’d receive a discount, presumably for taking the selfie with the baby. The booksellers responded by asking if he was from out of town; one offered him a “neighbor’s discount.” The booksellers’ friendly yet professional patter truly was impressive: they acted as if it was a common occurrence for them to interact with the First Family.
As he stood at the cash register, President Obama noticed a large wall display behind the cash register of television journalist Chuck Todd’s new release, The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House. Wondering out loud “what Chuck Todd has to say” sparked an exchange between him and Malia, who asked in a tone of contempt that only a teenager can truly master, drawling out the last word, “How is he writing a book already? Sad.” The two then riffed on how "sad" and "lonely" the President looked in an image on the cover jacket, with one bookseller chiming in that the publisher must have searched for the saddest image it could find of Obama to place on the cover. It was an intimate moment between a father and daughter who share an extraordinary rapport, even in the public eye.
One of the booksellers ringing up the 17 books President Obama was buying noted that he must “have a lot of time on his hands” to be able to read so many books. As President Obama handed over his credit card, he explained that some of the books were gifts and joked that he hoped the transaction would go through – a subtle reference to a restaurant outing in New York City in September when his card was declined because he uses it so rarely. (See the full list of the 17 books purchased here.)
As President Obama left Politics & Prose with his purchases at about 12:40 p.m., he waved farewell to his fellow customers, and bade us all to have a good afternoon. The crowd burst into applause for a second time, delighted to be in such close proximity with POTUS during his family outing on Small Business Saturday.
Two Families and a Holiday Tradition
A Small Business Saturday jaunt to a local independent bookstore is becoming a holiday tradition with the Obamas: this is the fourth Saturday after Thanksgiving that President Obama and his daughters have visited a local independent bookstore, and the second year in a row that he has visited Politics & Prose. Previously, he visited Kramerbooks on Dupont Circle in 2011 and One More Page Books in Alexandria, Va. in 2012.
Minutes after the Obamas left the store, Politics & Prose tweeted with an accompanying photo, “Delighted to help @Barack Obama and the #First Family on #SmallBusinessSaturday for the second year in a row. #POTUS.”
As for the Kirch/Sipress family, we were appreciative, first of all, to be treated with as much professionalism as was the First Family, in our own interactions with Politics & Prose staff; secondly, delighted to be eyewitnesses as the First Family shopped for books in an indie bookstore; and thirdly, excited that one of the eight books we purchased that morning – Brown Girl Dreaming – was purchased by the Obamas just a few minutes later.