Why We Bought a Bookstore: Progress Report
Back in April, SecondAct ran an essay by former Washington Post journalist and author Bradley Graham and his wife Lissa Muscatine, a former speechwriter and advisor to Hillary Clinton, about their decision to embark upon a second career as independent booksellers. All in all, it was a bold move, considering that neither had worked in retail, and the bookstore business has become notoriously dicey due to competition from online booksellers and the rising popularity of downloadable e-books. Here's the first of occasional progress reports on their adventure.
For Graham, who wrote a highly regarded 2009 book about former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, running Washington, D.C.'s Politics and Prose bookstore is a pleasant change so far from roaming the halls of the Pentagon and cajoling revelations out of tight-lipped government officials.
"When I come to the store in the morning, it doesn't feel as if I'm going to work," he says. "It's like going to a community gathering. We see so many people we know, and everyone has been so welcoming to us."
But Graham also has found that much of his journalistic skill set is transferable to running a retail business. "Reporting skills are very valuable, in terms of helping to identify what we don't know about the business and figuring it out," he explains. "As a reporter you learn to pay attention to detail, which is important to making a business work. And from working with sources, you develop skill in negotiating and interacting with people, and in understanding them and what they want."
It also helps that both Graham and Muscatine are used to working long hours. Running a bookstore is easier in some ways, he says, because "we don't feel so much at the mercy of the news cycle. When you're a reporter on a regular beat, you can't control when you're pulled away from whatever you're doing by breaking news. We haven't had any emergencies like that in the bookstore, at least not yet."
The couple took over Politics and Prose in June. Local bibliophiles are grateful to Graham and Muscatine for taking on the challenge, and for good reason. Since its inception in 1984, Politics and Prose has become a favorite gathering spot for literary-minded Washingtonians, who turn out in droves whenever one of the steady stream of visiting big-name authors gives a reading. (The store's events have such a following that they're often aired on C-Span.) Beyond that, however, with the gradual demise of other Washington-area independent bookstores and the recent bankruptcy and liquidation of the Borders chain, Politics and Prose is one of the last places in the city where you can peruse everything from a tome on ancient Chinese military history to the latest crime novel by D.C.-based author George Pelecanos, and then discuss the latest scandalous doings in Congress over a latte and a pastry in the basement cafe.
Although this recent Washington Post article reports that independent bookstores across the nation are enjoying a surprising resurgence, Politics and Prose's future prospects depend on Graham's and Muscatine's ability to strike a deft balance between maintaining (and augmenting) the store's traditional charms and adjusting to a trade increasingly dominated by the internet.
To that end, the new owners are launching a two-front campaign. On one hand, they're setting up a new section in the store that focuses on books by local authors and expanding their array of classes and community events. "We see our mission as serving the community, not just by selling books but fostering discussion and debate about all sorts of ideas," Graham says. "We want to maintain this as a place where authors and people can interact."
But the new owners also are cognizant that more and more of their customers are toting around Kindles and iPads, and even reading books on their smartphones. Rather than lament the rise of digital competition, they're jumping on the wave themselves, not just selling e-books through the P&P website but also offering walk-in seminars to show customers how to download books onto their device of choice.
They're also making a foray into print-on-demand publishing that will allow customers to order a hard-to-find book and have a copy printed while they wait. P&P is in the process of setting up an Espresso Book Machine, which can produce a high-quality bound volume in a matter of minutes.
Originally, print-on-demand was envisioned as a way for bookstores to offer the same huge selection of obscure and out-of-print titles that the internet does, but with the ease and speed of picking up a current bestseller from the shelf. "You can actually watch a 500-page book being produced and have it in six minutes," Graham explains. But there's an even bigger potential market: would-be authors who want to self-publish their books and sell them.
"We're still working out the economics, but it's going to be really affordable," he says. "We're not just talking about full-sized books. People will be able to print family histories, or anything else that can go between soft covers. And it's very professional-looking."
Enabling customers to publish their own books fits nicely with Graham's and Muscatine's core mission of maintaining a gathering place for people who love reading and ideas. Meanwhile, Graham says he's still waiting for the day when his former journalistic subject Donald Rumsfeld wanders into the store to shop. "I don't know if Rumsfeld is ever going to come in," he says. "But his wife, Joyce, has been a customer."
Here's a video interview that Graham and Muscatine did with Digital Book World about their plans for the future.