Threatening phone calls and online messages directed at Politics and Prose and surrounding businesses have persisted in the wake of a December 4 incident involving a bizarre conspiracy theory and a gunman who terrorized a nearby pizza restaurant, but sales and customer support at the bookstore have soared.
On December 4, 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch of North Carolina, spurred by a false story that Hillary Clinton and other Democrats were running a child sex slavery ring out of Washington D.C.’s Comet Ping Pong, walked into the restaurant, shot a lock off a door, and then pointed his gun at an employee. While the gunman ultimately surrendered to police, the incident prompted law enforcement to lock down businesses on the block for three hours.
In the weeks that preceded the incident, Comet Ping Pong’s owner and staff were targeted by thousands of threatening phone calls and messages on social media, as well as a few in-store incidents. The threats then extended to Politics and Prose and several other businesses on the block. Bradley Graham, co-owner of the bookstore with his wife Lissa Muscatine, said the threatening phone calls and vicious social media messages have not let up since the highly publicized attack on Comet Ping Pong.
There is, however, a silver lining: Since Comet Ping Pong made the news and it was revealed that other businesses on the block were being targeted, customer support for the bookstore and other area businesses has skyrocketed. Two weekends ago, Politics and Prose had the most sales it ever had in one weekend, according to Graham, who, with Muscatine, posted a thank-you note on the store’s website on December 8 to recognize the community for its support.
“Sales have soared this month not only in the bookstore but also in other neighboring businesses that have also been targeted in this whole Pizzagate affair, including Comet Ping Pong and Bistro Terasol,” he said. “Neighbors have really turned out in force to show their support for all our businesses, and we’re enormously appreciative of that and heartened by their expression of solidarity.”
At Politics and Prose, an increase in sales was apparent even before the incident, including a very strong Thanksgiving weekend. “We’re not sure entirely why sales started to increase significantly in late November; perhaps there is some link to the election result,” Graham said. “People may be turning more to books as a way of coping with their feelings.”
Originally, the bizarre conspiracy theory surfaced on Reddit and spread on social media and fake news sites prior to the presidential election. Since the Comet Ping Pong incident, Graham said he and Muscatine have taken steps to bolster Politics and Prose’s security and have spent time training staff on what to do if there is another physically dangerous event.
Beyond the bookstore’s walls, D.C. police have increased patrols in the area. Graham said he is glad this incident has prompted law enforcement to more seriously consider the possible dangerous consequences that can arise from the spread of fake news.
“We now have the attention of local and federal authorities, who have beefed up security patrols in our neighborhood, and we’ve been assured the police and the FBI are investigating these threats,” he said.
However, law enforcement is somewhat limited in what they can do if no physical threat is carried out. “Law enforcement officials have all the tools at their disposal to try to determine who’s behind these threats,” said Graham, “but they are also constrained somewhat by certain First Amendment limitations on freedom of speech and various court rulings that have dictated how far they can go in trying to act against such threats.”