The book festival was founded in 2001 by then-First Lady Laura Bush and then-Librarian of Congress James Billington. It started out on the grounds of the Library of Congress and eventually made its way to the National Mall. In 2014 it moved into the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Attendance started out at around 25,000 and mushroomed to more than 200,000 in 2019.
Being the official bookseller means stocking and selling books by the featured authors, and by the thousands. The first contracts went to big chain bookstores – first Borders, then Barnes and Noble, after Borders went out of business.
Bradley Graham, one of the owners of Politics and Prose, tells Forest Hills Connection that he started approaching the Library of Congress about taking on the role in 2011. P&P was finally asked to submit a proposal and in 2014, store was awarded a one-year contract. (Graham told The Washington Post at the time that “We really weren’t given any specifics about why we won, only that we had. In making the pitch, we stressed not only our ability to manage the job but also the message that selecting an independent bookseller would send.”)
Politics and Prose has been the official bookseller ever since. Last year, it was awarded a five-year contract.
The festival is an enormous undertaking, and was more so prior to the pandemic. Graham spoke wistfully about how the bookstore would take thousands of books to the convention center, do the set up and displays, and have 20 cash registers going at once during the one-day event. The American Booksellers Association says Politics and Prose brought more than 22,000 books to the 2019 festival and sold close to 17,000.
The pandemic-era festival is a ten-day, mostly virtual affair. Graham said attendance and book sales will be a fraction of those seen in previous years.
The 2021 National Book Festival started on Friday, September 17th and runs through Sunday, September 26th. You can check the schedule of live talks here, watch recorded author talks here, and don’t forget to buy the books from Politics and Prose and support this local business.