A Look at the New Chapter for Politics & Prose
- April 10, 2012
Sarah Vogelsong writes about the new ownership of independent bookstore and Washington institution Politics & Prose
by Sarah Vogelsong
Political tumult is business as usual for Washingtonians, but tumult in its local book and media market is another matter. DC residents are creatures of habit, and the December shuttering of the Georgetown Barnes and Noble, the nationwide demise of Borders, and a rash of small bookstore closures have seriously alarmed residents of this most literate of U.S. cities. But nothing has caused as much panic as the June 2010 announcement of the sale of Politics & Prose, Washington’s most prestigious independent bookshop.
For a year, rumors ran rampant. Founded in 1984, Politics & Prose had become a District institution, and its owners, Barbara Meade and Carla Cohen, were legendary figures in the community.
But finally, in June 2011, fears of the bookstore’s demise were quelled when the husband-and-wife team of Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine signed a contract assuming ownership of Politics & Prose.
“[Politics & Prose] is a place that celebrates the life of the mind, a public space that forges connections among a wide range of people and ideas,” Graham and Muscatine wrote in a Post article two months before the sale. “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.”
Now, eight months later, we caught up with Graham for a detailed look at both Politics & Prose and the independent bookstore scene in the nation’s capital.
Neither Graham nor Muscatine had worked in the bookselling industry prior to purchasing Politics & Prose. Graham previously covered foreign affairs for the Post and is the author of two books, one focusing on Donald Rumsfeld and the other on the U.S. missile defense system. Muscatine covered local politics and sports for the Post before becoming a speechwriter for both Clintons and, eventually, Director of Speechwriting for the Department of State.
Before taking the reins at Politics & Prose, Graham traveled around the country to meet with other independent booksellers and learn the lay of the land.
Washington’s independent bookstore scene is thin, represented by only three businesses—Politics & Prose, Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café, and Bridge Street Books. Some add Busboys and Poets to that list, although selection at the primarily restaurant-oriented business is small. (A variety of independent used or antiquarian bookstores such as Second Story Books in Dupont Circle, Idle Time Books in Adams Morgan, and Capitol Hill Books in Eastern Market also exist, but they operate in a slightly different market.)
In the past, the scene was far more diverse, although plagued by the volatility that characterizes any industry dependent on small business. The 2009 closure of Vertigo Books was a major blow to readers, particularly in the wake of the failure of beloved local chain Olsson’s Books and Records. Although Olsson’s operated nine locations in the DC metropolitan area at its peak, the business filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in June 2008 and then abruptly shuttered its five remaining stores in September of the same year.
To DC residents, it seemed only a matter of time before national chains and electronic booksellers pushed the independents out of business entirely.
However, despite the bleak outlook, Graham and Muscatine have experienced an unexpectedly successful eight months.
“One of the nicest surprises has been an increase in sales that began shortly after the time we assumed ownership . . . and has continued into the first part of this year,” says Graham. He notes that “other independent bookstores have experienced similar sales increases in the last six to eight months.”
Graham attributes this positive trend to several sources: the closure of Borders, the number of highly popular books that have hit the shelves recently, and a growing awareness of the importance of local business.
Over at Bridge Street Books in Georgetown, owner Philip Levy has also observed the effects of the disappearance of big chain bookstores. Until recently, Levy’s business had to share the market with the Georgetown Barnes and Noble. However, when B & N was driven out of its space by rent increases in December, book buyers were forced to turn to other stores.
“[This] was the best George Washington’s Day we’ve ever had,” says Levy.
Nevertheless, although the forecast has brightened recently, Politics & Prose is taking an aggressive approach to its survival.
“There are still a number of challenges ahead,” Graham admits. “We’re very aware of the potential for a fall-off in physical book sales, and we’re not at all certain about the long-term survival of those independent bookstores that have made it through so far….We’ve got to take steps to make sure that the store, if it runs into bumpier times, will be able to survive because it’s developed some other revenue lines, and we’ve built on some programs that have already proven successful.”
The greatest of these challenges is the rise of digital book sales. According to the Association of American Publishers, online book retail sales are quickly gaining market share that previously belonged to other sales channels. Online print sales and e-book sales are cutting into the revenues of both chain and independent sellers.
In response, Politics & Prose is working to develop its digital streams to offer both physical and electronic versions of books.
“People don’t know that in many cases, if they’re interested in e-books, they can order and download them from our website on any e-reader except the Kindle,” says Graham.
The store has also recently purchased a print-on-demand machine that has garnered much attention. Originally developed to permit access to out-of-print books, the machine is increasingly being used for self-publishing. At Politics & Prose, any customer with a manuscript in PDF form can plug into the machine and have his or her book printed, with a 300-page work requiring about five minutes.
But Graham has even more ambitious plans for his POD machine. Customers who wish to produce more professional books can turn to Politics & Prose for formatting, editing, and graphics services. Graham is currently working to develop a network of editorial and graphics professionals to whom he can refer interested authors. It’s an ingenious way of creating a publishing community without establishing an expensive independent press.
Despite its increased attention to new technology, Politics & Prose remains firm in its commitment to the local community and is working to build its existing programs.
“We’re adding significantly to the number of classes that we offer,” says Graham.
These classes, which range from courses on Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot to memoir writing workshops and “Knit lit,” are currently only offered during the day. Store space is limited, and in the evenings, rooms are reserved for author talks and book club meetings. All told, Politics & Prose supports some 80-odd book clubs and hosts over 400 events in-house—not to mention events held outside of the store, such as private parties, think tank gatherings, and book fairs.
In addition, in response to feedback from a survey conducted several months ago, Graham and Muscatine are developing a program of literary-themed trips that will focus on the literature and authors of various locales. The first two trips are tentatively slated for this fall. The pair hopes to solidify plans and make formal announcements in the next few months.
Indeed, one of the ways that independent bookstores have distinguished themselves from their chain counterparts is their emphasis on bringing the community together. The type of events offered inevitably varies according to the community’s interests. At Kramerbooks, where the restaurant and bar are a popular draw, the calendar is often dominated by wine or beer tastings. Because of its connection to the poetry community, Bridge Street Books hosts 20 to 30 readings per year. Politics & Prose offers a number of events for nonfiction and politically oriented works.
“We probably do more events on nonfiction books than many other stores,” says Graham. “That’s a reflection of where we are in the nation’s capital. A number of authors who speak here are local, and being in Washington, a number do focus on political themes. But I think that’s what our customers expect from us.”
“At the same time,” he adds, “we are very quick to try to land an author of a great work of fiction if we can get him or her.”
Often, the store can. Previous speakers include such luminaries as Ann Patchett and Joan Didion.
“Just because our name emphasizes politics and prose doesn’t mean that we don’t take very seriously other forms of writing,” says Graham.
Levy notes a similar pattern in book sales at Bridge Street Books.
“We probably sell three nonfiction hardbacks for every one fiction,” he says. He attributes this trend to the Washington environment, but observes: “It’s also a reflection of the state of fiction around the country.”
If independent bookstores are to remain viable in the future, local community will certainly play a key role in their preservation. In return, such businesses can provide a space for community members to come together. In a city like Washington, where residents are often not native to the area and highly diverse, such a function is invaluable.
“Having that kind of space where people can gather and listen to authors and discuss in a nonpartisan, non-politicized atmosphere all sorts of ideas and issues is more important than ever in Washington, given the tensions that exist and the politics of this country today,” maintains Graham.
Ultimately, Kramerbooks, Politics & Prose, and Bridge Street Books are more than bookstores in both function and spirit.
“[Politics & Prose] is a gathering place, a community center, a forum for public debate and civic dialogue,” says Graham. “Coming to Politics & Prose each day doesn’t feel like going to an office as much as going to a community center.”
Politics & Prose is located at 5015 Connecticut Ave NW and can be found at http://www.politics-prose.com/. Bridge Street Books is located at 2814 Pennsylvania Ave NW and can be found at http://store.bridgestreetbooks.com/info.html. Kramerbooks and Afterwords Café is located at 1517 Connecticut Ave NW and can be found at http://www.kramers.com/.
Sarah Vogelsong is a freelance writer and editor from Richmond, Virginia. Her work has also appeared in The Neworld Review and Pleasant Living Magazine.