What Happened When a Bethesda Couple Took Over Politics and Prose
Former journalists Lissa Muscatine and Bradley Graham bought the Upper Northwest D.C. bookstore in 2011
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Former journalists Lissa Muscatine and Bradley Graham were seen as unlikely successors.
On Nov. 10, two days after Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton to become the 45th president of the United States, Politics and Prose, the popular independent bookstore in Upper Northwest D.C., was in mourning. Many on the staff were distraught—for themselves and for co-owner Lissa Muscatine, whose association with Clinton goes back decades. “There was so much distress,” Muscatine says. She and her husband, Bradley Graham, opened the door to their small office on the main floor and invited staff to share doughnuts and discontent. There was a strong desire to do something, and during an all-hands meeting later, Muscatine, who was raised in a politically active family in Berkeley, California, suggested holding a series of teach-ins, a format of discussions and debate that grew out of Vietnam-era anti-war protests. The theme would be democratic principles that appeared to be threatened.
On Jan. 8, the first teach-in on civil liberties drew an unprecedented overflow crowd of more than 500 to the store, with another 5,000 watching online. The second teach-in on women’s rights, held on Inauguration Day, resulted in another overwhelming turnout. Politics and Prose, without “pussy hats,” signs or confrontation, had become the place for discourse, like the old Roman forum. Though Graham and Muscatine had long since been accepted by the staff and the community—the latter the lifeblood of an independent bookstore—these events seemed like an embrace of the owners and a pact of kinship.
The announcement in 2010 that the store was for sale was an event. Journalist/novelist Jim Lehrer compared putting Politics and Prose on the block to “selling the Washington Monument.” Thirteen-year veteran Heidi Powell, manager of the much-praised children’s department, said many customers mistakenly believed the store might close. Yet the sale in 2011—the purchase price was $2 million—and transition went smoothly.
P&P owners Lissa Muscatine and Bradley Graham speak with author Howard Norman (left), who read from My Darling Detective at the bookstore in April.
Record sales have been achieved in each of the past five years, Graham says. For the first time, P&P is actively considering opening branch stores, in Northeast and Southwest D.C.—an idea repeatedly rebuffed as too stressful and unnecessary by the two brilliant and feisty women who made their store into a revered “third place,” a refuge apart from home and the workplace. Carla Cohen was irascible but lovable and she lived and breathed books—and the store—and envisioned P&P as a kind of literary salon. Barbara Meade is more practical and very much the embodiment of the informed reader. Sole proprietors since 1984, they decided to sell after Cohen became ill with cancer—she died in October 2010—and were keenly aware of the need to find owners who would treat their shop like custodians of a precious family heirloom. As they were fond of saying, “We have built a community, and the community has built the store.”
Graham and Muscatine might be viewed as unlikely successors. Both journalists, they met in 1988 at The Washington Post. He was a veteran foreign correspondent editing on the international desk, and she was on the Maryland desk. Beginning in 1993, Muscatine became a significant figure in Hillaryland, a speechwriter and confidante who worked for Clinton in the White House and at the State Department, and Graham took a buyout from the Post in 2008. “Most people aren’t born into bookselling,” says Eileen Dengler, executive director of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, a regional trade group. “Brad and Lissa are people who believe in words.”
Graham read in the Post about the store being for sale and remembers hoping they would find someone to preserve it. Thoughts of being that someone did not occur to him. But former Post colleague Valerie Strauss and other friends nudged him to make a bid. Graham came from a business family. There was money from his paternal grandfather, who founded the Illinois Baking Co. on the success of the ice cream cone, and his father, who owned a profitable plastic packaging enterprise, and he had earned an MBA years ago, which, he jokes, helped in “filling out my expense reports.”
Months passed before Graham finally yielded to his entreaters, only to discover that he’d missed the deadline for applications by almost three weeks. He phoned sale coordinator Richard Goldberg in October 2010, hoping, he says, “that he’d say it was too late.” Goldberg invited him to fill out the lengthy questionnaire, which probed applicants’ vision for the store, asked about favorite books and so on. Muscatine was dubious, humoring her husband as if he’d announced he was running for president.