A Community Spine




ON THE LAST WEEKEND in August, book lovers flooded the nation’s capital to attend the annual Library of Congress National Book Festival. The festival has become a DC tradition since its premiere in 2001, with the President and First Lady acting as honorary chairs each year. Authors, agents, publishers, and readers come together for a day of sales, signings, and speeches.

This year, however, the event made a few changes. The festival was moved from the National Mall to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, and held over one long, 12-hour day, rather than over a two-day weekend. More importantly, a cornerstone of the capital city, Politics and Prose (P&P), was invited to be the official bookseller. Chain stores like Barnes & Noble had been given that honor for the past 13 years, but this time the festival chose to honor the capitol district’s well-known independent bookshop, famous for its huge local following and ability to attract notable guests.

On a typical week, P&P owners Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine, a husband-and-wife team, might host packed appearances by Hillary Clinton, David Sedaris, Steve Forbes, and John Waters. They host a monthly “Nerds!” trivia night and are currently planning their first wine tasting. That Graham and Muscatine managed to find time to organize an event as enormous and adored as the National Book Festival attests to P&P’s commitment to the DC literary culture.

According to the bookstore’s owners, they not only accepted the responsibility of running the festival but actively pursued it. “We thought we could do it just as well or better,” Graham told me, when I met with him and his wife. “Our pitch was, you know, give an indie bookstore a chance to do this.”

And they made good on their promise. An overwhelming number of festival-goers told Graham and Muscatine that they thought the event was a huge success. “We heard from the people who came that it was as good an experience as they ever had,” said Graham. “Everything from the personal advice that our booksellers were able to offer to the speed at which the lines moved.”

“And it was mobbed,” Muscatine added. “Unbelievable numbers of people.”

“Some customers jokingly suggested that we go help out TSA at airports because they could learn something from us,” quipped Graham.

But the owners and their faithful staff will have little time to catch their breath and enjoy the victory before another exciting celebration begins: the store’s 30 year anniversary.

“It’s a nice affirmation that the physical book is still very much in demand,” Muscatine remarked of the milestone. But in P&P’s case, that’s not the whole story. This little business supplies much more than a demand for literature.

Graham and Muscatine bought the store three years ago after one of its founding members, Carla Cohen, died in 2010. At the time, Graham was a longtime reporter for The Washington Post. Muscatine had also worked at the Post, but established a career as a speechwriter for Hillary Clinton during her years as First Lady and Secretary of State. It was a brave business move for the couple, considering that neither had any experience running a store. And this was not just any store; it sold products threatened by a Cambrian explosion of online shopping sites, e-books, and digitized literature. Despite the Internet’s threat to local bookstores, the couple was eager to maintain the store’s tight-knit and devoted community. They knew that P&P was special. It had more than just customers — it had a fan base.

“Having been a journalist for 30 years myself, it’s still striking how often we get asked to talk about the store and the book business,” said Graham. “It’s more than I was ever asked to speak about earthquakes and political revolutions and wars that I covered.” By purchasing P&P, Graham and Muscatine became mom and pop to a shop with a loving (and very large) family. “What I’ve come to realize is that people take their local bookstores very seriously,” Graham added. “At least this one.”

The P&P family started with two original matriarchs. Carla Cohen opened the shop in 1984 with her partner Barbara Meade. At the time, they had one part-time employee and occupied a much smaller space across the street from P&P’s current location. Within five years, the shop was packed with books, customers, and a few more employees. The business was growing in size and popularity, so they crossed Connecticut Avenue for a place with more room to spread out.

At the same time, an alarming trend was spreading throughout the country. Big box corporations were taking over the bookselling business, seducing readers with half-off stickers, suede armchairs, and built-in coffee shops. In 1989, the same year as P&P’s space upgrade, Barnes & Noble had just acquired a chain called Bookstop and its 22 locations. By 1992, the company had almost 800 stores to its name. In 1993, Kmart had combined its two newly-purchased chain bookstores, Borders and Waldenbooks, and was beginning an aggressive campaign to open locations around the world. Small indie bookstores couldn’t compete and were closing up shop en masse. The trend even made it into the plot of You’ve Got Mail, a romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan that (ironically) centered around the Internet, the very thing poised to threaten bookstores in the coming years.

P&P wasn’t about to become a casualty, however, and in 1999 it made an acquisition of its own. The shop merged with Cheshire Cat, a children’s bookstore in the neighborhood, and established what is currently the store’s popular children’s section. P&P fought off the growing big box threat by finding ways to include more of the DC community.

“One of the genius things that Carla and Barbara did in founding P&P was to establish it as a meeting place, to discuss literature and ideas,” said Graham. “With that mission, there was a lot of room to develop.”

What truly developed was the store’s commitment to education, not just through books but also through gathering initiatives that brought people into the store. It was what would ultimately keep them on the map. P&P was able to remain competitive because it offered readers opportunities to engage with the literary world, instead of simply offering discount prices. “The store is known for being more than a bookstore,” Muscatine said. “We have groups and classes and outings. It’s kind of a marketplace for ideas.”

Even though the bookstore was originally founded as a place to meet and share ideas, the new owners decided to increase P&P’s programming after they acquired the store three years ago. Muscatine wanted to see the educational aspect of P&P revitalized and enhanced: “We knew there was still going to be an appetite for classes around books and literature.”

With the staff’s input, they began adding more events to the schedule, constructing classes, and enlisting people in the community to teach them. The response was “overwhelming, instant and positive,” according to Graham. The store has now taught over 100 classes and has a large catalog available, even though they warn that sessions fill up quickly. Courses include memoir-writing workshops, comic book crafts for kids, and insider tips for drafting letters to literary agents. Muscatine has even returned to her roots with a speech-writing course.

The classes aren’t the only draw. The store hosts authors every night and has faithfully kept up old traditions with big turnouts.

“Trivia night is huge,” said Graham. “On a slow night, we get over 100 people.”

“People want to be with people, discussing and sharing something of common interest,” Muscatine said. “It’s not a huge commitment, but it’s enough to make them feel a sense of belonging. And we were able to kind of tap into that. It was building on the store’s spirit and essence.”

That being said, not all people want to be with all people. The social and political facets of DC aren’t melded neatly together. A somewhat high-brow urban bookstore will naturally draw the city’s left-leaning customer base, making that “sense of belonging” a somewhat complex recipe that the store is still trying to master. But Muscatine and Graham are determined not to run an exclusive club.

“We’ve tried to broaden that voice by inviting more conservative authors because that’s also part of the Washington community,” Graham insisted. “There’s a greater need than ever for there to be some place in DC to have reasonable discussion of different views, given the growing political polarization.”

Muscatine nodded. “As a journalist and a speechwriter,” she said, gesturing between the two of them, “we care about the role of discourse in a democracy. The quality of that discourse is eroding seriously at this point. This place could and should be a forum for civic and civil discourse.”

This isn’t always the easiest point of view to communicate to customers. The store gets the occasional angry email or in-person visitor when a controversial name appears on the site’s calendar. But Muscatine says they don’t let that affect their mission. “I get really upset when people think we shouldn’t have an author because they don’t agree with their views,” she said. “I find that offensive. We’ve had a few conservative authors where people asked that they not be invited.”

It’s not just national politics that get people stirred up. Foreign policy gets a lot of heat, too. “We’ve had writers come in to speak who have published books about the Middle East, which can get tricky,” said Muscatine. “You can’t have an author representing one side without the other side and that upsets people now and then.”

They do have one rule, however. “As long as it’s not hateful,” she said. “It can’t be a hateful message. But otherwise, if someone has written a book that represents a point of view and is willing to get up in front of people and allow them to ask questions, that’s important. We can all gain from that kind of dialogue. We demand that they be shown respect.”

Not every name on the guest calendar is well-known. P&P has a signature commitment to the city’s unpublished writers. A large, transparent machine, affectionately named “Opus,” sits prominently in a side section of the store, gears and cogs visibly gleaming in the window’s natural light, its glass walls reflecting images of the full bookshelves. “That’s our print-on-demand machine and it is used largely to self-publish,” said Graham. “We think that’s important to the community of writers who might not have an opportunity to get their works out.”

This service goes beyond printing and binding: P&P actually gets the work into the hands of the public. The bookstore publishes an anthology called “District Lines,” featuring original works about Washington, all by local writers. The store then hosts “District Lines” public events, where a dozen or so of the writers each read their contributions to a large audience. “The untapped talent in this community is incredible,” Muscatine says. “With that anthology, you get this wonderful portrait of this area. It’s one of my favorite events that we do.”

As for the Amazon threat to their actual book sales? Graham isn’t concerned. “Searching online is something you do when you know exactly what you want and so you go look for it,” he told me. “Browsing a store is what you do when you have a general idea or maybe you have no idea at all, and it’s a process of discovery.” The couple credits that experience at P&P to their well-selected staff. “We have booksellers who really know books,” Graham said. “And they can offer guidance that beats hands-down whatever an online algorithm can offer.”

The both stimulating and relaxing atmosphere in the store is certainly due in part to the enthusiasm radiating from P&P’s employees. Floor manager Angela Spring happily leads customers around the shelves, pointing and pulling out selections to discuss.

“Oh, do you know this author?” she’ll ask brightly. “This is her new collection of poetry. It just came out and I’ve been so excited about the release. She’s a rock star.”

According to Graham, these are the services you can’t get from corporate chains or websites.

“The last few years have seen a significant strengthening of the independent bookstores in the United States,” he said. “We’ve seen record sales and we’re not alone in that. After a 20 year decline.” He mentions a theory referred to in the book business as “the third place:” a person’s need for an alternative to the standard back-and-forth between the home and workplace. The indie bookstore, bridging the two with both the function of a business and the comfort of reading, is a “haven.”

Graham and Muscatine both recognize how important the combination of home and business is to staying not just in the minds but also the hearts of DC-area residents.

“They go hand in hand,” said Muscatine. “We can’t support the community if we’re not here. So we have to make sure the business is strong. We try to figure out how we can help the business not just survive but thrive.” Though the store has done both for three decades, the owners are choosing to stay homey and humble for the celebration: “We’ll have champagne. We’ve invited a lot of people from the community. Anyone can come.”

And what’s in store for P&P next 30 years? I asked. Graham laughed: “It’s hard enough to see even 10 years down the road. I don’t know anybody with clear crystal balls who is willing with confidence to predict the future of the book industry.” But putting aside the insecure realities of business in general, he admitted that he’s optimistic, saying that he sees the independent bookstore model as “very much alive.”

“The factors that have brought P&P to where it is today are strong local support, lots of great books still coming out, and a reading public that is still interested. That will hold.” Graham added that he looks to those factors as his own personal crystal ball.

As for Muscatine, she just hopes to keep the store as that ever-so-central port in a stormy city of tension and technology. “My hope is that in an age where everything has been so homogenized and digitized,” she said, “people will increasingly find this to be an antidote to a virtual existence.”

¤

Lauren Hodges is an editor and blogger at NPR.


RELATED


PRESS ENTER TO SEARCH, OR ESC TO EXIT