Mary Beall Adler’s memoir of life and bagels is a Washington book like no other. Since she opened Georgetown Bagelry on M Street in 1981, her customers have included the White House, Congress, and more of the powerful, rich, and famous. At her River Road shop the teenage private school children of the elite line up daily for their favorite—sausage, egg, and cheese sandwiches—and her bagels are served at Politics & Prose, La Mano Coffee Bar, and Qualia Coffee. Adler’s compelling book tells a tale beyond bagel-baking, too, one that will resonate with women in particular. Within the pages of Who Scooped My Bagel?, amid baking tips and the inspiring keys to her success, is an account of a trip to hell and back, a horror story of marital distress, physical abuse, alcoholism, abortion, divorce, and debt.
It spirals way down before it rises up—but the book ends upbeat, with a “recipe for contentment.”
Adler is clear about the turning point, when she realized that everything was at stake—her family, and the business she had built with the husband who made her fear for her life. It comes after a particularly bad episode: Adler’s husband is in jail, and she is at home, pregnant and with a 1½-year-old. Still, 24,000 bagels had to be made that day. “I went into the factory office, sat down in [her husband] Razz’s chair, took a deep breath, became still, and began listening for direction,” she writes. “I prayed. By remaining still and breathing deeply, I could feel my own heartbeat. When I listened quietly, my heart told me what to do.”
Adler’s business instincts and passion for baking bagels guided her as she took control of Georgetown Bagelry and kept it on track despite the turmoil around her. “I am good at making bagels; I am great at making mistakes,” she writes. Adler divorced, got custody of her three children, split off one business for her ex-husband, and ultimately moved Georgetown Bagelry from its first home on M Street to its Bethesda location, which produces between 400 and 450 dozen bagels a day.
Adler eventually remarried. Her children are now in their twenties, and she has three stepchildren. She is a former gymnast and athletic coach, and in addition to running the bagelry, she teaches “meditative spinning.”
New Year’s Day was one of her two busiest days of the year (the other is Yom Kippur). We talked to her the morning after.
When and how did you decide to write such a revealing book?
I love to write. I decided I need to put this out there to get it behind me. I’m glad I did it now. It was very scary. I edited out at least 30,000 words, just trying to keep it clean and sharp. I told my publishers it was good that I stopped when I did, because after publication more things came out of the woodwork.
Did you have second thoughts about putting into the book the details of your personal life?
No. It was very emotional.
Did you pass the manuscript by your children?
No. They have since read it—Lucien immediately. He’s in Afghanistan with the Marines. He was so proud. He wrote me, “Mom, I know that is just a super small part of the story.” My son Badger skipped through the bagel parts and just read the personal stuff. My daughter read it in one night and just cried. I kept it my story and honored them at the same time.
What comes through is that even when you were in the depths of hell, you managed to keep your business running.
My mother was a Christian Science practitioner for 35 years. I grew up with a strong metaphysical background. I had this capability of transcending what’s physically here and going to this spiritual place that’s in a different sphere. Also, I had a lot of support from the people in Georgetown who knew me for years and years. They knew what was going on. I spent a lot of time at the West Side Club [operated by Alcoholics Anonymous].
In the book you write about your husband’s alcoholism. Were you an alcoholic, too?
No, but I was self-medicating. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
What else did you rely on for survival?
Keep moving, one foot in front of the other, without even having a huge plan in place, doing whatever seems to be the next obvious thing—for the business, the kids. Just one little step.
Do you recognize the importance of asking for help?
It’s still hard for me to do. I was so ashamed of my marriage. Nobody in my family had ever been divorced. It just got worse and worse because I didn’t ask for help. But I had this profound love for my children. I really have to work on asking for what I need, but we don’t always know what that is.
You say making a great bagel requires love and passion, but what else?
Not changing the recipe. High-quality flour, which I blend. When the economy bites the dust, don’t cut corners.
Are there bagel seasons?
For us, now, no; it’s steady year-round. It used to be summers were slow, but not anymore. Our core market is teenagers, and they are repeat customers forever.
What seems to be Washington’s favorite bagel?
Everything and cinnamon-raisin. We’re starting to sell a whole lot of whole-wheat ET [bagel shop code for “everything”].
Who buys what? Do women buy different from men, children from adults?
Everybody buys the same thing, but the kids all buy bacon, egg, and cheese. That’s the big sandwich.
If a customer asks to have a bagel scooped, will you scoop it?
Absolutely. I scoop them all the time. I love the crunchiness.