Last June, when Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine purchased the landmark Washington D.C. bookstore Politics and Prose, they were determined to adhere to the goals of the store’s founders — to offer superior service, unusual book choices, and a gathering place for people interested in reading and discussing books — while making the changes necessary to thrive in an industry in flux. With backgrounds in journalism and government speech writing, Graham and Muscatine were well-equipped to meet the literary needs of their politically charged community.
“Both of us had careers in the world of ideas and words, so it didn’t seem like that much of a stretch to get involved in the running of a bookstore,” said Graham, “even though we didn’t have retail experience.”
Graham drew on his years as a reporter for the Washington Post, taking a journalistic approach to learn more about the industry. His thorough research on the subject brought him to independent bookstores across the country to learn from those who know it best.
“What I found among booksellers was this great sense of collegiality, a sense of inventiveness and dedication to this business that was inspiring,” said Graham. “People were very open to sharing their thoughts and experiences. I learned a lot that way.”
The common thread among the most successful stores is that “they were all very rooted in their communities,” he said. “They saw their mission as more than simply selling books. They have defined themselves as places that foster a sense of community and that promote the discussion of literature and ideas.”
Politics and Prose has been a community institution since 1984, when it was founded by Barbara Meade and the late Carla Cohen, so the new owners set out to build upon its existing strength.
“The store is a landmark in Washington, with extremely devoted customers,” said Muscatine. “We certainly didn’t want to do anything to undermine that. It’s always been a gathering spot, a place that is a forum for discourse.” With a calendar of 475 author events per year that are free to the public, Politics and Prose remains a hub for learning and literature in the community.
“The other thing we didn’t want to change was the quality of the staff,” said Muscatine. “They are curators, and that’s what really sets us apart from online competitors. We kept the staff as it was, as much as we could. They have followings in the community, too.”
As new business owners in an uncertain economy, Graham and Muscatine were prepared for some obstacles, but happily, what came as one of the biggest surprises is that revenues are up.
“The downturn that we feared might happen suddenly, or immediately, hasn’t occurred,” Graham said, “just the opposite. Our customers have been buying physical books in greater numbers, and more have been coming to our events. We’ve been able to launch several new projects successfully that promise to add fresh revenue streams to the store’s bottom line.”
One of those projects, introduced a few months after Graham and Muscatine took ownership of the store, was an Espresso Book Machine, affectionately nicknamed “Opus.”
The store’s POD business has been building steadily said Graham, adding that there have been a couple months when the EBM produced more than 1,000 copies. The large majority of users are self-published authors, though there is a small percentage who make use of the machine for out-of-print titles.
Politics and Prose is currently in the process of obtaining a liquor license “to add to the ambiance” of its many evening events, said Muscatine, and as a way to foster lingering conversation and socializing after the events come to a close.
In addition, Graham and Muscatine have significantly increased the store’s class offerings. It currently hosts 30 different classes, including memoir writing and women in literature.
Most recently, the owners expanded on the Politics and Prose tradition of bringing people together around books with plans to take readers and authors on the road. A series of literary trips abroad are in the works, beginning this fall with a visit to Ireland led by Folger Poetry Board President Gigi Bradford, and a trip to Paris and the French Riviera with P&P’s senior book buyer Mark LaFramboise.
All of the changes that have been introduced “should keep the store vibrant and profitable,” said Graham.