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With National Book Festival, Politics & Prose Lands Biggest Stage Yet

Politics & Prose will be the official bookseller at this weekend's National Book Festival.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
Politics & Prose will be the official bookseller at this weekend's National Book Festival.

For Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics & Prose, the last few months have been a bit of a blur. "All in all, we’ve ordered more than 220 titles that have totaled more than 17,000 books," he says.

Graham has reason to be busy: He's preparing the local institution for a very national stage. On Saturday, the store will serve as the official bookseller for the National Book Festival, the 14-year-old literary event organized by the Library of Congress that annually attracts tens of thousands of visitors. It'll be the first time in the festival's history that an independent bookstore has won the contract; Borders and Barnes & Noble held the role over the last 13 years.

In an era of unrelenting pressure on independent bookstores from book-selling behemoths like Amazon and changes in how — and how much — people read, Graham sees the opportunity less in terms of how many books he'll get to sell and more in what it'll say to visitors about American literary culture and independents' place in it.

"In our proposal to be the bookseller, we emphasized that if we were selected it would send a signal that the independent bookseller in this country is alive and well and that independents remain a vital part of the book culture of the United States. I think a lot of people in the book business have seen our selection in those terms," he says.

Graham has been pursuing the contract since he bought the three-decade-old on Connecticut Avenue store three years ago. While the store failed to land the contract after a pair of initial attempts, his inquiries pushed the Library of Congress to change how it doles out the book-selling contract. In 2013, the contract was handled by a third party that put the contract out for bid; every year before that, the Library of Congress has approached sellers directly. Graham submitted a proposal, but lost out to Barnes & Noble.

“The process still seemed to us somewhat geared in favor of a chain, because the questionnaire asked us how many stores we have and how many times we have done a book festival the size of the National Book Festival," he says. Politics & Prose sells at the Gaithersburg Book Festival, but had never landed an event bigger than that.

This year he tried again, and much to his surprise, the store won the contract. On Saturday, the store will appear before the tens of thousands of people expected to attend the festival.

But for whatever celebration there was, it was brief. Not only was Graham given less than two months to order thousands of copies of books written by the festival's hundreds of featured authors — "Being the bookseller of the National Book festival is a very challenging undertaking," he deadpans — but he was also faced with a series of significant changes to how the festival is run.

Due to new rules governing how the National Mall can be used, the festival was moved indoors to the Washington Convention Center for the first time ever. It is also occurring a month earlier than usual, and will take place over one day, not the usual full weekend.

“What’s particularly challenging this time around with the festival is because it has never been held indoors before and because it has been held over Labor Day weekend, much of the empirical data from the previous 13 years… much of that data doesn’t really apply. There’s a lot of guesswork that’s gone into our estimating about how many books to order," he says.

All told, it's plenty. “There are over 100 authors coming, speaking and signing, but in addition there’s something called the Pavilion of States, where there is a book that’s been selected by the state librarian of every state and the territories, they call it ’52 Great Reads,'" he says.

Still, Graham is optimistic with what the festival will bring — and what it will help say about independent bookstores. He plans on posting wallpaper around the festival listing the names and locations of 2,000 independent booksellers around the country, a nod to the literary culture he says he will be representing.

"We hope that people who see this wallpaper… they will come away with a deeper impression of just how vital the community of indies remains," he says.

The festival takes place on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. at the Washington Convention Center.

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