Second acts are seldom easy in this area, especially for people who have played prominent roles on the national stage. Often they have to answer some version of the uncomfortable question: “Didn’t you used to be somebody?”
Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine met as young reporters at The Washington Post and went on to high-flying careers: he, as a Pentagon correspondent and author; she, as one of Hillary Clinton’s closest advisers. A year ago they bought Politics and Prose, the famous independent bookstore on Connecticut Avenue in Upper Northwest Washington, D.C. Instead of influencing policy, they now serve customers, one by one, day by day.
At 59, Graham looks well-suited to his new role, with his mild manner, rimless glasses and gray- flecked beard.
“It doesn’t feel like we’re coming to an office, or coming to a business,” he says. “It feels like we’re coming to a community center.”
Muscatine, a forceful figure at 57 in dark blazer and jeans, adds: “My favorite thing of all is to be at the cash register. You feel like you’re half politician, half bartender, half salesclerk. People are coming up, you see what they’re buying, you engage in a conversation. There’s a sense of personally connecting that’s really important.”
Yes, it is. Politics and Prose was started in 1984 by Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade, and from the beginning, they saw the store as “a public space, a gathering place,” in the words of Cohen’s husband, David. The store hosts 475 authors a year (with a record five events in one day), several dozen book clubs, a weekly children’s sing-along and countless exchanges between real people who actually talk to each other without the help of texts or tweets or any device made by Apple.
The founders decided to sell the store after Carla Cohen was diagnosed with cancer (she died in October 2010), and more than 50 potential buyers originally showed interest.
Graham had taken a buyout from the Post and was working on a new book about defense spending when he felt the tug of family tradition. His grandfather had made a fortune selling ice cream cones, and his father had expanded into plastic packaging materials, an embarrassing business for a boy growing up in the late ’60s. In The Graduate, the iconic movie of the era, an obnoxious family friend gives a young Dustin Hoffman career advice: “Just one word: plastics.”
“It became kind of a punch line,” Graham recalls. “ ‘What does your dad do?’ ‘He’s in plastics.’ ‘Very funny, I’ve seen the movie, too. What does he really do?’ ”
What his father didn’t do and didn’t understand was journalism, but Graham “got the bug” at Yale and went his own way.
“Brad is really the only non-businessperson in his whole extended family,” says Muscatine, a Harvard grad and Rhodes Scholar. But the chance to buy the store brought him back to his roots. “I had this sense,” he recalls, “that there was some business interest in my genes.”
The store connected Muscatine to her own family legacy, as well. Both of her parents had written several books—her father, about medieval literature; her mother, about food and wine—and like her husband, she was ready for a new challenge.
“I had gotten really exhausted, as I think we all have, by the toxic nature of public discourse in this country,” she says. P&P represented “one of those oases where people could come and actually step out of the static, the loud and oppressive noise that surrounds us on a daily basis.”
Many bidders understood the store’s special role as a center of civility, but Graham and Muscatine had three advantages. One was capital. Graham’s family had sold enough cones and containers for him to finance the $2 million purchase (as well as the couple’s stunning stone-and-glass home on Glenbrook Road in Bethesda, where they live with their three teenage children). Two was Muscatine herself. Since the store was started by women, the sellers wanted a female involved. Three was time. “Absentee owners” were ruled out, David Cohen says, and the buyers had to agree to make this their main occupation.
When we talk in the store’s cramped office, I ask what they’ve learned over the past year. “The biggest surprise is how strong business has been,” Graham says. It’s up about 15 percent, and there are several possible explanations: The Borders chain closed; popular books like the Steve Jobs biography attracted customers; the weather stayed mild all winter. But the main reason, Graham thinks, is community loyalty.
“Certainly among our customers—and I hear this from other store owners—there’s a renewed commitment to buy local, to support your neighborhood store, a kind of anti-Amazon sentiment.”
Despite the encouraging profits, “we are not coasting,” Graham says. “We knew we were acquiring a business model that was sputtering, if not dying.” Internet sales and e-books continue to ravage brick-and-mortar outlets and the owners are assiduously looking for new revenue sources that “capitalize on the P&P brand,” but don’t diminish it.
One innovation: a massive machine that prints any book in about five minutes. The assumption was that customers would buy out-of-print titles this way, but it turns out that “there are many grandparents who want to write memoirs for their grandchildren,” says Cohen, who remains involved in the store.
Another change: an expanded roster of classes that range from writing poetry to reading Dashiell Hammett. And this spring the owners announced a new venture: foreign trips with a literary flavor, starting this fall with Ireland and France.
Running a cash register on Connecticut Avenue is a big change from writing a biography of Donald Rumsfeld or roaming the world with Hillary Clinton. But Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine have found their second act. As her Valentine card to him put it, “With love from your business partner.”
Steve Roberts’ latest book, Our Haggadah (Harper, 2011), was written with his wife, Cokie. Contact him with column ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.