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The People and Places of Northwest Washington

April 25, 2012 ■ Page 15

Almost a year in, owners of Politics and Prose reflect

By ANNA WEAVER Current Correspondent


issa Muscatine wrote a new note of affection at the end of her Valentine’s Day card to her husband this year: “Love from your business partner.” That added relationship between Muscatine and her husband of 20 years, Bradley Graham, emerged in June 2011 when the couple took over ownership of Politics and Prose Bookstore, a beloved Northwest Washington institution. Almost a year after buying the store, the couple reflected on what has surprised them about their new gig. For one thing, Muscatine said that while she and Graham had been customers at the independent bookstore at 5015 Connecticut Ave. for years, it took becoming its owners to realize just how loyal Politics and Prose customers are. “I think the rabid support for the store made it appealing for people like us to think about buying it,” she said. “But just the absolute depth and degree of it I don’t think I fully appreciated.” Graham said he and Muscatine expected those faithful Politics and Prose patrons to have trouble accepting new owners after the same two proprietors had run the bookstore for the better part of three decades. After all, concerned customers started publicly worrying about the store’s fate soon after its original owners, Barbara Meade and Carla Cohen, announced in June 2010 that they wanted to retire and sell. Cohen passed away from cancer four months later. Her husband, David Cohen, and Meade officially sold Politics and Prose to Muscatine and Graham on June 17, 2011, after 27 years of a Meade-

Cohen ownership. Graham said that though there is the occasional customer gripe over an unfriendly experience, “those complaints are so rare that I can’t believe it!” Another pleasant surprise, he said, is that sales have been up since he and Muscatine took over. “There are still a lot of dark clouds over the book industry, a lot of real threats to the future stability and profitability, not just to Politics and Prose but to all independent bookstores,” Graham added. “So we’re not standing still.”

Path to ownership

Perhaps the biggest surprise for Muscatine and Graham was that they were chosen over other potential buyers with more money and retail experience. Graham, who was raised in Chicago and Pittsburgh, interned at The Washington Post after graduating from Yale. He returned to Washington and The Post full-time in 1978, working his way from covering national business to taking overseas reporting assignments. Around 1989, when Graham was back at the Washington office and on his way from assistant foreign editor to deputy national editor, he met Muscatine at the paper. The Berkeley, Calif., native had

Above right and below right, Anna Weaver/The Current; others, Current file photos

Lissa Muscatine and Bradley Graham, above, bought Politics and Prose from its longtime owners last year after working for years in media. Though some feared changes at the beloved bookstore, sales have actually increased since the purchase, with the new owners adding features like an on-demand book press, above left, and maintaining old traditions, like offering the shop as a gathering place, below left. moved to Washington in 1979 and covered a variety of Post beats including sports, politics and education. The pair married in 1992 and now live in Bethesda with their 18-year-old twins and 14-year-old. Muscatine went on to work for the White House from 1993 to 1998, mostly as Hillary Clinton’s chief speechwriter. She collaborated on Clinton’s bestselling memoir, “Living History,” and worked as a senior adviser on her presidential campaign. From 2009 to 2010, she was a State Department senior adviser and speechwriting director. Graham eventually shifted from editing back to reporting, covering the Pentagon and military affairs for the paper between 1994 and 2008, with breaks to write a book

on national missile defense, “Hit to Kill,” and a Donald Rumsfeld biography, “By His Own Rules.” Graham was working on another book proposal in the fall of 2010 when friends encouraged him to consider buying Politics and Prose. Initially, he worked by himself to fill out the extensive questionnaire that Barbara Meade and David Cohen had created to weed out the first round of potential buyers. But Meade had made it clear that she wanted at least one of the new buyers to be a woman to continue her and Carla Cohen’s legacy. Muscatine said she thought Graham’s interest was neat but figured, “You’re going to own Politics and Prose, right. Everyone wants to own Politics and Prose!”

Still, Graham convinced Muscatine to come along for a second-round interview, and she began to see how the store could be a way to promote the “higher level of civil discourse” that she found lacking in government work. “This is an oasis … a forum for ideas and for people who are writers and thinkers to get together and actually engage in the kind of dialogue that interests me,” she said.

Work partnership

Graham and Muscatine will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary tomorrow, and they say that raising three kids, building a house together and learning each other’s personalities inside and out have See Bookstore/Page 20

20 Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Current

Northwest Real Estate BOOKSTORE From Page 15

helped them to naturally complement each other as business partners. Both introduce speakers at events, handle personnel matters and long-term strategic planning, and edit each other’s writing for the store blog and newsletter. Graham, who speaks methodically and thoughtfully and has a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford, prefers to handle more of the business side of the operations. Muscatine, the more animated talker of the two, spends more time on the bookstore floor and building up the shop’s inventory of non-book items. She looks at running a bookstore as “part art and part science.� “It’s not like we’re selling one model of Chevrolets or even five models of Chevrolets,� she said. “We’re selling 35,000 different titles of books, each of which is different from the next. “It’s a much more complicated, complex and frankly much more interesting and fascinating enterprise [than I ever knew],� said Muscatine. Both continue to work 40-plus hours a week, a pace they’ve kept up since their Washington Post days. And they’ve turned that energy toward initiating new Politics and Prose efforts. There’s a new in-store book-printing machine called Opus, intended to drum up self-publishing and out-of-print book orders on demand; more classes and store-led trips

abroad tracing literary paths; a website redesign to promote more web and e-book sales; and plans to alter the store’s layout to allow for more space and better flow. Muscatine and Graham believe that those beyond-bookselling efforts, plus the store’s expert staff, steadfast customer base and strong community feel will keep Politics and Prose thriving. “All those things ‌ connect our community to the larger world of books and ideas in ways that an online retailer simply can’t,â€? Muscatine said. Former Politics and Prose owner Barbara Meade isn’t surprised by Muscatine and Graham’s success so far. She likes their imaginative and entrepreneurial approach. “I’ve felt consistently ever since they took over the ownership that David Cohen and I made the right decision,â€? said the 76-year-old Meade, who still spends about two days a week at the store helping out and visiting with patrons.

Indie atmosphere

One thing that doesn’t seem to be changing is the Politics and Prose independent vibe. You’ll find customers slowly browsing the store’s well-curated brown bookshelves for books like Denis Johnson’s 2012 Pulitzernominated book “Train Dreams� and Madeleine Albright’s latest memoir, with no Danielle Steel in sight. Mark Framboise, the store’s head book buyer, said Politics and Prose customers have discriminating tastes. “If people really wanted dreck, that’s what we would sell. But that’s not what they want,� he said.

Current file photo

Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade ran the bookstore for 27 years.

Graham and Muscatine are avid readers themselves. Graham says he favors nonfiction, but loves a good spy thriller, too. Muscatine prefers fiction, like current favorite “The Buddha in the Attic� by Julie Otsuka, though she finds herself reading lots of nonfiction these days in preparation for introducing some of Politics and Prose’s speakers. And being in the store every day, surrounded by books, ideas and lively people, seems to them more a delight than a job. “Coming to the store each day has not felt like coming to a workplace so much as it has felt like going to a community center,� Graham said. A crucial part of that community center is the spot at the back of the main floor, where the popular author and speaker events take place, such as recent visits from “The Phantom Tollbooth� author Norton Juster and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.

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A first-time “Pitchapaloozaâ€? event in that spot last month packed in those wanting the chance to give one-minute book pitches to a panel of literary experts and agents. The store’s events have gotten so large that it is looking off-site to host those expected to draw the biggest crowds, such as April 28’s Rachel Maddow appearance at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. Downstairs at Politics and Prose, there’s a small coffee shop and the sale book section, as well as an extensive children’s area with everything from French- and Spanishlanguage kids books to the latest in Mo Willem’s “Elephant and Piggieâ€? series. Tell one of the children’s section staffers you need a book for a third-grade boy and she’ll point you to half a dozen options, explaining the plotline and merit of each. Politics and Prose has a reputation for a high-caliber staff, and Muscatine and Graham have retained almost all of the shop’s previous 55 or so employees. Muscatine calls them the “crème de la crème of book-selling staff.â€? Book buyer Deb Morris, who is retiring this month after more than 16 years at the store, said, “[Muscatine and Graham] have a great deal of respect for the knowledge of the people here on staff, and I think they realize they have a learning curve because this is all new to them.â€? The couple has also created a new editorial and programming director position, filled by author Susan Coll, who has developed more classes and more literary trips, starting with excursions to Ireland and France this October.

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By ANNA WEAVER See Bookstore/Page 20 Lissa Muscatine and Bradley Graham, above, bought Politics and Prose from its longtime owners last year...