But some encouraging signs exist. After years in which few new bookstores were started, at least 437 have opened since 2005. And last year the ABA’s total membership rose for the first time in years. Still, sellers remain worried about the threat of growing online sales and e-books.
“There’s a significant probability that this whole business will go away,” one prominent bookseller in Massachusetts told Brad. “If you get Politics and Prose, you have to be ready for that possibility. My own business plan has been this: Let’s not lose too much money.”
But several people who have been in the book business for decades were more optimistic. They recalled that similarly dire predictions of collapse followed the rise of chain and discount stores, only to prove too pessimistic. Moreover, independents retain strong advantages in the deep community connections they often have.
Indeed, the independents tend to be an enterprising bunch. To stay in business, they are sponsoring more special events, offering print-on-demand machines for self-publishing customers, expanding sales of non-book items and designing more engaging Web sites.
One lesson from Brad’s tour was that no one seems to have come up with a home-run solution to save the independents, but a lot of sellers are still managing to get on base with singles and doubles, and that is likely to be the nature of the business for the foreseeable future. A number of owners expressed confidence that if any store could survive, it would be P&P, because of its loyal and large customer base, expert staff, extensive links to other Washington community organizations, and widely respected name.
So it was not hard, nor did it take long, for us to decide that, if we were lucky enough to become P&P’s new owners, the store would be our full-time vocations. And while we knew we would have much to learn about the book industry, we also felt that our backgrounds could benefit the business. Both of us have spent our professional lives at the intersection of writing and ideas — Brad as a journalist and author, and Lissa as a journalist, speechwriter and book collaborator. And we remain concerned about the erosion of democratic discourse, particularly in this era of high-decibel, mean-spirited public dialogue.
Politics and Prose has long been an oasis from the hazards and vicissitudes of the loud and instant world in which we live. It is a place that celebrates the life of the mind, a public space that forges connections among a wide range of people and ideas. That, as much as anything, is what made us want to buy the store. And it is what we are determined to preserve, while looking for ways to ensure that P&P stays relevant, influential and technologically up to date.
We will be fortunate in the coming months to be tutored by Barbara, who has agreed to stay through the end of the year. We are also grateful that David will serve as a guide and counselor.
Most gratifying to us has been the outpouring of good wishes we have received since the sale was announced this past Monday. Everyone we hear from, it seems, has a story about Politics and Prose. A favorite employee or aisle to browse in. A memorable speaker. A children’s storytelling event. A faithful book club. A preferred table in the cafe. And most of all, a profound desire to see this unique place remain at the heart of our community.
Bradley Graham is a former reporter and editor for The Washington Post, and Lissa Muscatine, also a former Post reporter and editor, was most recently a speechwriter and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton. They will assume ownership of Politics and Prose later this spring.
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