By Kathi Webb ’76 [P ’10, ’11, ’14]
The Sidwell Friends School community has no shortage of book lovers, so it was no surprise that a group of 40 grandparents, friends, parents of alumni, and jubilee alumni eagerly gathered at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, DC on February 12 to hear co-owner Lissa Muscatine [P ’12, ’12, ’16] talk about her experiences running the bookstore and offer some book recommendations for her SFS audience
Lissa was introduced by Barbara Morgan Meade ’53 [P ’77, GP ’23], one of the cofounders of Politics & Prose with the late Carla Cohen.
Lissa and her husband, Bradley Graham, share a love of words and ideas honed over years as journalists and, in her case, as a speechwriter as well. These were some of the qualities that appealed to Barbara and Carla when they were selecting buyers for the store in 2010. It was important to the cofounders that the people taking over Politics & Prose would continue to nurture their vision of a bookstore as serving a wide range of readers and providing a gathering place for thoughtful conversation about books, authors, and the pressing events of the day. Lissa and Brad shared the cofounders’ vision and, mindful of the store’s influential role in the community, were determined to build on the original mission and “not screw this up,” as Lissa puts it.
Under the leadership of Brad and Lissa, and with critical guidance from Barbara and a network of independent bookstore owners, Politics & Prose continues to flourish. The space to display books has grown, the menu of book talks, classes, and trips has grown, and the presence of the store in the city has expanded through collaborations with Busboys and Poets and through ongoing partnerships with other organizations and with local libraries. A deep commitment to community and a passion for bringing books, authors, and readers together is important to the sustained success of independent bookstores such as Politics & Prose, particularly in the face of competition from Amazon and other online retailers, said Lissa. She surprised the audience by revealing that the bookstore employs a full-time staff of 90 and a part-time staff of almost 150. While some senior positions are filled with people who have been at the store for many years, the staff also includes young booksellers who are simply passionate about books and enjoy working at Politics & Prose while they decide what to do next with their lives. A number of Sidwell Friends alumni have found their way to, and through, employment at Politics & Prose.
In addition to an inventory of carefully curated titles, Politics & Prose’s main book floor includes themed displays related to current or seasonal events. Among the displays are staff picks, a table of required reading for presidential candidates, and the store’s best sellers, such as Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Lissa mentioned several titles beyond the best sellers that are sometimes overlooked but are worth reading:
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs
The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross
Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf
The Speechwriter by Barton Swaim
Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
Another book that Lissa recommends is Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul by Eddie S. Glaude Jr., who was a member of the store’s recent panel on race in America.
Barbara Meade’s current favorite is Excellent Sheep, which explores the academic world and what colleges and universities should be teaching college students now.
Clay Wescott [P ’10] shared his favorite book, The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford, which talks about artificial intelligence and the associated winner-takes-all ethos.