Politics and Prose: Books, community and evolution in D.C.

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The demise of the independent bookstore has been prophesied for years, yet Washington, D.C., staple Politics and Prose is not only thriving but expanding. The local establishment has a loyal fan base after 34 years in business, and Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine inherited a community institution when they took ownership seven years ago. The challenge, as Graham puts it, was to make the changes necessary to adapt to a transforming marketplace without alienating long-time customers. On this episode, the Retail Gets Real team chats with Graham about the owners’ vision for the bookstore and why they decided to expand.

“I didn’t have any experience in business,” Graham says, though his journalism background and natural penchant for research helped him reach out to other successful independent bookstore owners around the country. Two things stood out: The thriving bookstores were adaptable and enterprising, and deeply rooted in their local communities.

Bradley Graham in the podcast studio.

Bradley Graham in the podcast studio.

 “I knew we had to change,” Graham says — though it was deliberately paced so employees and patrons had time to absorb the changes and show support. “When you take over responsibility for such a treasured enterprise, you feel a great sense of responsibility,” he says. “And our motto, from the beginning and to this day, has been don't screw it up.” While Politics and Prose opened two new locations over the past year, the flagship location also got a facelift — a new roomful of books and business space, and a revamp to the popular attached coffee shop.

Politics and Prose pays special attention to events meant to nurture a sense of community. Classes, workshops and author talks take over the store nearly every day, groups of travel enthusiasts get together to explore exotic locations with a literary bent like Paris and aspiring authors get a leg up with self-publishing services.

Listen to the episode to learn more about how Politics and Prose builds community. For a closer look at the human face of retail, subscribe to Retail Gets Real on your favorite podcast app.

Kristina Stewart is a co-host on NRF’s Retail Gets Real podcast. Meet all the co-hosts and learn more about the show.