Almost a year in, Politics and Prose owners find balance in their bookstore

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By Anna Weaver

Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary this April 26, and they say that raising three kids, building a house together and learning each other’s personalities inside and out helped them in moving to the next stage of their relationship – owning an independent bookstore.

The husband-and-wife team took over Politics and Prose Bookstore, the beloved Northwest Washington institution, in June 2011, and running it has turned out to be “part art and part science,” Muscatine says.

“It’s not like we’re selling one model of Chevrolets or even five models of Chevrolets,” she said. “We’re selling 35,000 different titles of books, each of which is different from the next.

“It’s a much more complicated, complex and frankly much more interesting and fascinating enterprise,” than she ever knew, said Muscatine.

Although both Graham and Muscatine have retired from their respective careers as a journalist and a speechwriter, neither seems fazed by each putting in 40-plus hours a week to their new business partnership.

“I work at that pace and so does Lissa,” Graham said.

Now they’ve turned that energy toward the store and have found complementary roles in running it. Both introduce speakers at events, handle personnel matters and long-term strategic planning, and edit each other’s writing for the store blog and newsletter.

Graham, who speaks methodically and thoughtfully and has a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford, prefers to handle more of the business side of the operations. Muscatine, the more animated talker of the two, spends more time on the bookstore floor and building up the shop’s inventory of non-book items.

Together they’ve initiated new Politics and Prose efforts like an in-store book-printing machine called Opus, which is intended to drum up self-publishing and out-of-print book orders on demand; more classes and store-led trips abroad tracing literary paths; a website redesign to promote more web and e-book sales; and plans to alter the store’s layout to allow for more space and better flow.

Muscatine and Graham believe that those beyond-bookselling efforts, plus the store’s expert staff, steadfast customer base and strong community feel will keep Politics and Prose thriving.

“All those things … connect our community to the larger world of books and ideas in ways that an online retailer simply can’t,” Muscatine said.

Over at fellow Washington independent bookstore Kramerbooks & Afterwords, book buyer Jake Cumsky-Whitlock says he appreciates that Politics and Prose’s has “been good at embracing new forms of bookselling and technology.”

“They’re such a beloved institution in this town,” Cumsky-Whitlock said of Politics and Prose, and attributes that especially to the store’s “customer service-oriented bookselling.”

Former Politics and Prose owner Barbara Meade isn’t surprised by Muscatine and Graham’s success so far. She likes how imaginative and entrepreneurial they’ve been.

“I’ve felt consistently ever since they took over the ownership that David Cohen and I made the right decision,” said the 76-year-old Meade, referring to the husband of the store’s late co-owner, Carla Cohen.

Meade still spends about two days a week at the store helping out and visiting with patrons, lending an air of continuity at the store.

Indie atmosphere

Another thing that doesn’t seem to be changing is the Politics and Prose independent vibe. You’ll find customers slowly browsing the store’s well-curated brown bookshelves for books like Denis Johnson’s 2012 Pulitzer nominated book “Train Dreams” and Madeleine Albright’s latest memoir, with no Danielle Steel in sight.

Mark Laframboise, the store’s head book buyer, said Politics and Prose customers have discriminating tastes. “If people really wanted dreck, that’s what we would sell. But that’s not what they want,” he said.

Graham and Muscatine are avid readers themselves. Graham says he favors non-fiction, but loves a good spy thriller too. Muscatine prefers fiction, like current favorite “The Buddha in the Attic” by Julie Otsuka, though she finds herself reading lots of non-fiction these days in preparation for introducing some of Politics and Prose’s speakers.

And coming to the store every day, surrounded by books, ideas and lively people, seems to them more a delight than a job.

“One of the great feelings for both Lissa and me since we’ve taken over is that coming to the store each day has not felt like coming to a workplace so much as it has felt like going to a community center,” Graham said.

A crucial part of that community center is the spot at the back of the main floor, where its popular author and speaker events take place, such as recent visits from “The Phantom Tollbooth” author Norton Juster and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.

A first-time “Pitchapalooza” event in that spot last month packed in those wanting the chance to give one-minute book pitches to a panelist of literary experts and agents. The store’s events have gotten so large that it is looking off-site to host events for especially big events like April 28’s Rachel Maddow appearance at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue.

Downstairs at Politics and Prose there’s a small coffee shop and the sale book section, as well as an extensive children’s area with everything from French- and Spanish-language kids books to the latest in Mo Willem’s “Elephant and Piggie” series.

Tell one of the children’s section staffers you need a book for a third-grade boy and she’ll point you to half a dozen options, explaining the plotline and merit of each while apologizing that a particular one is on the expensive side but nevertheless really excellent.

Politics and Prose has a reputation for a high-caliber staff, and Muscatine and Graham have retained almost all of the shop’s previous 55 or so employees. Muscatine calls them the “crème de la crème of book-selling staff.”

Book buyer Deb Morris, who is retiring this month after more than 16 years at the store, said, “[Muscatine and Graham] have a great deal of respect for the knowledge of the people here on staff, and I think they realize they have a learning curve because this is all new to them.”

The couple has also created a new editorial and programming director position, filled by author Susan Coll, who has developed more classes and more literary trips, starting with excursions to Ireland and France this October.

Long-time customer Gigi Bradford said she and other Politics and Prose loyalists are glad the ownership transition has been seamless because they love their neighborhood bookstore.

“It’s a locavore bookstore for locavore readers, just heads and shoulders above everything else,” said Bradford, who also guest teaches poetry classes at the store. “For people who care about books and ideas, this is nirvana.”

Path to ownership

While Muscatine and Graham are definitely readers and both have written books, neither had experience in retail before taking over Politics and Prose.

Graham, who was raised in Chicago and Pittsburgh, interned at the Washington Post after graduating from Yale and returned to Washington and the Post full-time in 1978 where he worked his way up covering national business before taking overseas reporting assignments in Central and Eastern Europe and South America.

In1989, when Graham was back at the Washington office and on his way from assistant foreign editor to deputy national editor, he met Muscatine at the paper. The Berkeley native had moved to Washington in 1979 and covered a variety of Post beats including sports, politics and education. They married in 1992 and now live in Bethesda with their 18-year-old twins and 14-year-old.

Muscatine went on to work for the White House from 1993 to 1998, mostly as Hillary Clinton’s chief speechwriter. She collaborated on Clinton’s bestselling memoir, “Living History,” and worked as a senior adviser on her presidential campaign. From 2009 to 2010, Muscatine was a State Department senior adviser and speechwriting director.

Graham eventually shifted from editing back to reporting, covering the Pentagon and military affairs for the paper between 1994 and 2008, with breaks to write a book on national missile defense, “Hit to Kill,” and a Donald Rumsfeld biography, “By His Own Rules.”

Graham was working on another book proposal in the fall of 2010 when friends encouraged him to consider buying Politics and Prose.

Initially it was just Graham who filled out the extensive questionnaire that Barbara Meade and David Cohen had created to weed out the first round of potential buyers. But Meade had made it clear that she wanted at least one of the new buyers to be a woman to continue her and Carla Cohen’s woman-owned-store legacy.

Muscatine said she thought that it was great that Graham wanted to buy the bookstore but figured, “You’re going to own Politics and Prose, right. Everyone wants to own Politics and Prose!”

Still, Graham convinced Muscatine to come along for a second-round interview, and she began to see how the store could be a way to promote the “higher level of civil discourse” that she found lacking in government work.

“This is an oasis itself … a forum for ideas and for people who are writers and thinkers to get together and actually engage in the kind of dialogue that interests me,” Muscatine said.

Muscatine and Graham were picked as Politics and Prose’s owners after a close decision, and the two officially assumed ownership on June 17, 2011.

“I’ve joked, although it’s actually true, that Lissa now introduces me not as her husband but as her business partner,” Graham said. “She actually wrote me a Valentine’s Day card that said, ‘Love from your business partner.’”

Bookstore discoveries

Almost a year after buying the store, the couple reflected on what has surprised them as the new owners.

Muscatine said that while she and Graham had been customers at the independent bookstore at 5015 Connecticut Ave. for years, it took becoming its owners to realize just how loyal Politics and Prose customers are.

“I think the rabid support for the store made it appealing for people like us to think about buying it,” she said. “But just the absolute depth and degree of it I don’t think I fully appreciated.”

Graham said he and Muscatine expected those faithful Politics and Prose patrons to have trouble accepting new owners after the same two proprietors had run the bookstore for the better part of three decades.

After all, concerned customers started publicly worrying about the store’s fate soon after its original owners, Barbara Meade and Carla Cohen, announced in June 2010 that they wanted to retire and sell the shop.

Cohen passed away from cancer four months later. Her husband, David Cohen, and Meade officially sold Politics and Prose to Muscatine and Graham in June 2011 after 27 years of a Meade-Cohen ownership.

But Graham said that though there is the occasional customer gripe over an unfriendly experience, “those complaints are so rare that I can’t believe it!”

Another pleasant surprise, he said, is that sales have been up since he and Muscatine took over in June.

“There are still a lot of dark clouds over the book industry, a lot of real threats to the future stability and profitability, not just to Politics and Prose but to all independent bookstores,” Graham added. “So we’re not standing still.”

 

A different version of this story originally appeared in the April 25, 2012, editions of “The Current Newspapers.” The story below is the final version I submitted for my graduate Public Affairs Reporting class at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.