When the announcement came last June that Politics and Prose was up for sale, we had the same nervous questions that many other Washingtonians had: What would new ownership mean for book lovers who enjoy browsing contemplatively in the store’s aisles or attending its events? For P&P staff members who are so expert at matching new titles with their customers’ tastes? For authors who make P&P a favored stop on their book tours? For families who boast three generations of loyal customers?
We wondered about all these things, but we never considered trying to buy the store. At least not then. One of us was busy developing a book proposal, and the other was preparing to leave the State Department for a calmer life of writing and teaching. And besides, who would want to run a bookstore in 2011, when online sales, electronic books and declining readership have become the death knell for big bookstore chains and many independent stores across the country?
But here we are, nine months later, the eager-to-get-started, owners-to-be of Politics and Prose.
Our evolution from P&P fans to P&P proprietors began almost accidentally. Over the summer, friends urged Brad, who has spent his career in journalism, to think about bidding for the store. We talked about it, and in October, he submitted a lengthy questionnaire required of all prospective buyers that asked about everything from his favorite books to his vision for the store’s future.
The questionnaire was one of many examples of the seriousness and care with which the store’s owners, Barbara Meade and David Cohen, were going about the sale. David’s wife, Carla, conceived of Politics and Prose in 1984, and Barbara became a partner soon afterward. They were a formidable book-selling pair whose vision, passion and hard work built Politics and Prose into a Washington landmark.
But Carla’s cancer diagnosis in 2009, and her passing last October, left Barbara and David with the sad duty of having to sell their community treasure. As Barbara told The Washington Post on Monday: “The hardest part of all this was losing Carla. I told Carla it would be too lonely to run a business by myself.”
What was evident to us throughout the sale process was that Barbara and David were not selling just a business. They were selling a cultural institution that was part discussion forum, part neighborhood meeting ground, part event stage. And they were determined that Politics and Prose not only survive and thrive, but continue to reflect Barbara and Carla’s legacy.
Barbara also made clear that it was important to have a female presence at Politics and Prose, since women had founded and run the store. This point hit home especially with Lissa, who was already warming to the idea of a husband-and-wife team managing P&P. So what started as a solo enterprise for Brad quickly became a partnership.
The exhaustive sale process went on for many months (during which Borders filed for bankruptcy), giving us time to learn more about the book industry and the challenges it faces. Although Brad comes from a long line of businessmen, and Lissa from a family of authors, the only real experience we had with book retail was through Brad’s two books on defense and national security and Lissa’s collaboration on Hillary Clinton’s White House memoir, “Living History.”
Brad traveled around the country during the winter visiting several successful independent booksellers to learn what they have done to survive.
Independent sellers account for about 10 percent of book sales in the United States. Over the past 20 years, the number of independents tracked by the American Booksellers Association has fallen by about 66 percent. For those surviving today, operating margins generally remain thin, with hundreds of stores reporting no profit at all.
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.