Since Barbara Meade and Carla Cohen opened Politics and Prose in the fall of 1984, the much-loved independent bookstore at 5015 Connecticut Avenue has become a neighborhood icon, offering everything from new literature and non-fiction to author events and classes. After Cohen passed away from cancer this past fall, Meade sold the store in June to Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine. Both former Washington Post reporters and editors, the husband and wife team have also been closely involved in politics—one of Graham’s two books is a biography of Donald Rumsfeld and Muscatine was most recently the State Department’s director of speechwriting. We sat down with them recently in their Bethesda home to talk about what’s next for the bookstore, what's on Muscatine’s book shelf, and Graham’s favorite spot in Washington.
You both have had long, successful careers in politics and journalism. What made you decide to switch gears to running a bookstore, especially at a time when bookstores nationwide are struggling to survive?
Graham: We were both at a place in our careers where we were ready to embark on another project, so the sale of the store came along at an opportune moment. I was starting another book, and Lissa was about to leave government, so we were both able to embrace another opportunity.
Muscatine: We also were interested in doing something community-based, and although we didn’t plan on owning an independent bookstore, the announcement that Politics and Prose was being sold made us realize that we didn’t want to see such an important part of the community slip away.
A recent New York Times article noted how some independent bookstores are now charging admission for author events or requiring attendees to purchase a copy of the book in the store. Is that something you would consider doing?
Graham: Over the years, the idea of charging for events had been considered by P&P’s previous owners, Barbara Meade and Carla Cohen. We have no plans to change the existing policy of free admission.
Some stores have started offering print-on-demand-machines. Do you plan to have one at Politics and Prose?
Graham: These machines have proven especially popular with some authors who are interested in self-publishing and also with customers who want to obtain out-of-print books. We’re looking into the economics of it.
How do you persuade people that the bookstore experience is something that e-books and books bought online can’t offer and that’s necessary to a community?
Muscatine: The differences are so stark in my mind. An independent operation like Politics and Prose is more than a bookstore. It’s a forum, a gathering spot, and a public space where ideas are exchanged. Our staff of buyers and booksellers rightly view themselves as curators of the books we sell. They’ve read the books themselves; some of them know the authors personally. They have expertise to offer to customers and a level of personal interaction that you just can’t get on Amazon.com or in a large chain store. In addition, we have over 500 author events a year that are a free service for our community. So P&P has become a venue for the kind of civic discourse that simply doesn’t exist in the same way on-line.
Are there any books you would recommend?
Muscatine: As we say on P&P’s tote bags and t-shirts: “So many books, so little time.” There are countless great books I’d recommend. But I’ll stick to a couple of fairly recent titles: The Tiger’s Wife is a wonderful example of allegorical fiction written by an exciting young author, Tea Obreht. I’d also suggest A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. For non-fiction, The Emperor of All Maladies is a “biography” of cancer and a towering work that is brilliant.
W hat has your impression been as the new owners of Politics & Prose?
Graham: I guess the primary impression that we’ve come away with so far is the excellence of the staff. We’ve spent our first weeks in the store meeting individually with each employee, which has just confirmed for us how knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and creative the staff is.
What’s your favorite spot in DC?
Graham: Right now our favorite spot is Politics and Prose. It was pretty high on the list even before.
Muscatine: Besides P&P, my favorite spot is probably cycling the Crescent Trail by the river early in the morning.