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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After a failed sale attempt in 2006, Meade and Cohen were not taking a successful bidder for granted. Only 20 of the original 50 interested parties submitted the required questionnaires; six were selected to be interviewed. To his surprise, Graham was among them. Preparing to leave their Bethesda home for his interview, Graham asked Muscatine if she wanted to come along. Why not? she thought. The panel, including Meade and Cohen’s husband, David, seemed keenly interested in what Muscatine had to say. “Afterwards, it was conveyed to me that they thought I was OK, but they really liked Lissa,” Graham says, laughing. It didn’t hurt that Muscatine was chair of the board of trustees of Sidwell Friends School, and that Meade and her three siblings graduated from the school. Meade says she felt strongly that “there had to be a woman involved” in the ownership. More interviews and a request for a business plan memo ensued. “It was a long process,” Graham says, “occurring about the same time as the Arab Spring, so I joked that several Arab regimes came and went during this decision period.”
As he waited to see if his offer was accepted, Graham visited the owners of other bookstores—among them: R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Connecticut; Village Books in Bellingham, Washington; and Books & Books in South Florida. Harvard Book Store owner Jeff Mayersohn bluntly asked Graham, “Would you be ready to lose your entire investment?”
Mayersohn’s purchase in recession-era 2008 caused some to question his sanity. E-books were taking off and Amazon was killing independents at an alarming rate. Two years later, “I was having too good a time,” Mayersohn says, so he didn’t discourage Graham. He provided a nuts-and-bolts tutorial and relayed some lessons learned at the so-called “bookstore school,” a training course by Florida’s Paz & Associates. Graham was also encouraged by veteran owners who’d been through several predictions of doom and had demonstrated that great service could inspire loyalty. Several reassured him that if any independent store could survive, it would be P&P, due to its deep community roots.
Two finalists were chosen. Graham and Muscatine were up against the EDENS group, which developed Union Market and the Mosaic District in Fairfax, Virginia. In March 2011, the couple and their twins, Wynne and Cole, were on a college visit to Harvard when Graham’s phone rang. It was Goldberg. “Really?” his family heard him ask. “Oh my God,” Graham exclaimed, turning to his family as they stood on a street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “We’ve got it.”
When head book buyer Mark LaFramboise arrived at P&P for his job interview in 1997, he was chatting with general manager Ron Tucker near the store’s front entrance as well-known author and amateur sportsman George Plimpton ambled in. “Excuse me, gentlemen,” Plimpton said. “Would it be all right if I signed copies of my biography of Truman Capote?”
LaFramboise grinned at Tucker. “Yeah,” he said, “I could work here!”
Few touring authors bypass P&P; in fact, the only prominent absentee anyone could recall in recent memory was Bruce Springsteen, who was promoting his memoir, Born to Run, in 2016. But when you hold 450 author events annually, even The Boss isn’t much of a loss. The new owners were keenly aware of P&P’s reputation, locally and nationally; both were customers, and Graham had read there from his Donald Rumsfeld biography. They knew that beloved institutions are like comfort food, so customers would be skeptical of a radical alteration in the menu and that too much change too quickly could be ruinous. Their stewardship came with a “very big responsibility to the community,” Muscatine says. “For me, this bookstore is a place to reflect, have discourse and interact with others—the antidote to the homogenization of mass communication. You see the pride and proprietary interest with which members of the community treat this store.”
“You do feel a certain weight when you take over a treasured enterprise like P&P,” says the 64-year-old Graham.
“When you acquire an iconic business, you have to treat it with respect,” Mayersohn adds. “But you also have a kind of Greek chorus commenting on what you do—so you have to be aware that your actions will be scrutinized.”
So Graham and Muscatine had a motto: “Don’t screw it up.”
The new owners decided to hold off on any changes, and then to proceed gradually. They eliminated the general manager position and held all-staff meetings twice a year; smaller group sessions were more frequent. Graham and Muscatine, 62, met with every staff member individually.
Over the next two or three years, the store’s floor plan was altered. A nearly 40-year-old inventory point-of-sale system was replaced. A number of “architectural” updates were made—walls were taken down and a structural column was removed—to improve the flow of the 14,000-square-foot store (retail occupies 8,000 square feet) and to increase the space available for author events and display tables. The cash registers were moved to one side, and the mammoth information desk was reduced in size by almost two-thirds. “We thought of the large desk as a statement—‘we’re here to help you,’ ” Meade says, “so I might not have reduced it so much. But it is true that info desk staff would sometimes be so busy socializing that they ignored the customers.” Meade, now 81, stayed on as an adviser for 18 months after the sale and still takes an active interest in the store.