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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Graham, who ran the business side while Muscatine was drawn to the sales floor, determined that the revenue stream needed more tributaries. “Sideline” items—nonbook merchandise such as greeting cards, calendars and book lights—were increased because they typically have a higher markup than the 40 percent on books. Author Susan Coll was the first new hire in 2011, tasked with expanding the store’s programming, including readings, classes on writing, poetry and literary studies, trivia nights and group trips to England, France and even South Africa. Coll says this created some tension “between those who think a bookstore should just be a bookstore and those who believe you need to do more to keep the lights turned on.” Book buyer LaFramboise, one of the strict constructionists, says, “My bias is toward books. But I realize in order to maintain a viable business, we have to offset the [low] markup on books.”
Graham admits to two false starts. Their first trip model, using a local travel agency, was too structured and expensive. “We then switched agencies and developed a series of trips that were more economical and less structured,” he says. “They sold out.” A second misstep was hiring an outside firm to redesign the website. “After working with this firm many months, we ran into technical difficulty trying to implement its plan and ended up instead using in-house staff to change the look of our website,” Graham explains.
Early last year, P&P purchased two 2,000-square-foot condos at the corner of Nebraska and Connecticut avenues to use as classroom space. Events were added at partner venues such as the historic Sixth & I synagogue, which offers greater capacity. “Carla would love what they’ve done with programming,” Meade says. But she’s less enthusiastic about the P&P ministores added in 2015 to three Busboys and Poets locations, including the flagship venue at 14th and V streets NW, believing the expansion stretches the staff. Graham remains happy with the arrangement, although he and Busboys founder Andy Shallal are currently discussing its future. Graham and Muscatine also are looking at opening a second or third P&P store, with eyes on the Union Market area in Northeast D.C. and the Wharf development in Southwest. Barnes & Noble in Bethesda Row will close at the end of the year, and in April Graham told Bethesda Beat they “would definitely look at the possibility” of opening a store in Bethesda.
One real crowd-pleaser, according to customers, is the renovated coffee shop downstairs. Christened The Den, it is now operated by P&P after years of being contracted out. Matt Carr, the owner of nearby Little Red Fox, serves as manager.
Graham and Muscatine are in the bookstore virtually every day; Graham is usually in their office sorting out the numbers, while Muscatine often roams the sales floor. She now takes a role in book-buying so she handles orders from W.W. Norton & Co. After six-plus years, Graham says they finally planned a two-week vacation this spring.
Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning military historian (and a former Washington Post reporter), has read at the store from all six of his books, beginning in 1989. “Brad and Lissa both come out of the newspaper business, so they know what it feels like to have something they care about under existential threat,” he said in an email. “They’ve obviously built on the very solid core business. More than ever the store feels like a port in a storm, a village green, a bastion of civil discourse at a time when such bastions seem rare.”
The renovated coffee shop is on the lower level of P&P. It offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as beer and wine.
In 1999, during an author event—no one at P&P can agree on who was reading, but, oddly, they are certain it was nonfiction—a customer in the audience suffered a heart attack and died. The customer’s daughter later wrote a note to Meade and Cohen saying that her father would have been happy to know he died at Politics and Prose.
Former employee Hannah Depp, who left P&P after six years in 2016, says the store operated more “organically” in the past. “Under Brad and Lissa, it’s a bit more Washington—let’s create a committee to do something,” says Depp, who departed when offered the position of operations director at WORD bookstore in Brooklyn. During the transition, she adds, “customers were more nervous than staff” about P&P’s future. Now it’s as if the store is experiencing a rebirth, Depp says.
Several developments have improved the outlook for independent booksellers, says Oren Teicher, the CEO at the American Booksellers Association (ABA). “The ‘buy local’ movement has had a significant impact,” he says. “The cost of technology has come way down, so stores can afford more sophisticated payroll and inventory systems. And publishers have improved their replenishment systems so that stores can get a book a customer wants within a day or two.” Graham cites some other factors: The closing of the Borders chain in 2011 removed a huge competitor. The popularity of e-books has leveled off. Publishers also provide marketing money to stores to help sell books, and have offered better terms for bill-paying.
A February 2015 report by the ABA said the number of member independent bookstores had increased 27 percent since 2009. Amazon, with a market share of close to 70 percent in e-books and about 64 percent in printed books, remains the chief threat, and the online behemoth has begun opening brick-and-mortar stores. The expansion of P&P’s reach under new ownership is a shrewd way to counter Amazon, Teicher says.
Overall, Graham estimates more than $500,000 has been invested in the store since he and Muscatine took ownership. Sales have risen 50 percent over the past five years to more than $10 million a year, but expenses have also increased, with more to come. Graham cites rent hikes and a prospective minimum-wage increase to $15 an hour. P&P employs 80 full-time employees and about 40 part-time workers.
“Owning this store was never a dream or fantasy of ours because it never would have occurred to us,” Muscatine says. “It turns out it’s a lot of people’s fantasy, though they don’t realize how hard it is. It’s been this full immersion into this world that we barely knew, but now represents really everything we care about.”
Steve Goldstein is a freelance writer and editor. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.