The independent bookstore, as imagined by a corporate lobbyist

Tusk, a corporate fixer and venture capitalist, sees opening a brick-and-mortar bookstore as his way of giving back. (Photos: NYTimes)
Sitting at the bar in the exclusive Delta Club at Citi Field, where his beloved New York Mets were in the process of sweeping the New York Yankees in the Subway Series, the political fixer and venture capitalist Bradley Tusk described his designs on the future.اضافة اعلان

He talked up his $10 million philanthropic campaign to build a system that would allow all Americans to vote on their phones; so far, the campaign has funded pilot programs in seven states. He enthused over an investment proposal from a Native American tribe to transform its South Carolina reservation into the “Delaware of web3”. He pointed out a massive blue billboard in the outfield advertising the blockchain firm Tezos, one of many financial technology companies he advises.

But his latest project is set firmly in the present and relies on very old technology. Tusk, 48, has opened a brick-and-mortar bookstore — one that he is marketing as family-owned and independent, a shift away from his longstanding identity as one of New York City’s premier corporate fixers.

The 278sq.m. space offers 10,000 books and a cafe, as well as a podcast studio and an 80-seat amphitheater for readings and book releases. Upcoming readings feature the kind of writers you would see on any indie bookstore’s events calendar, like debut novelist Mecca Jamilah Sullivan and poet Topaz Winters. At one recent talk, novelists Kevin Nguyen and YZ Chin answered uncanny questions from the GPT-3 artificial intelligence program (“Who are your influences?”) projected on a screen above their heads, to the amusement of a youngish crowd with an array of literary tote bags.

But the store also recently hosted a book party to celebrate a new memoir by Lis Smith, the political strategist who managed Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign and who dated former Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York in his post-scandal years. The crowd included CNN host Brian Stelter; political and corporate publicists Risa Heller and Stu Loeser; and Matthew Hiltzik, another communications fixer whose clients have included the likes of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Glenn Beck, and Johnny Depp.

The political crowd was a more familiar one than the literary crowd for Tusk, who spent his formative years clawing his way up the pecking order of Democratic politics. Along the way, he developed high-level government connections and a nuanced feel for the levers of urban power, which served him well when he transitioned to working as a consultant and lobbyist for private companies battling regulators.

In college, Tusk interned for Mayor Ed Rendell of Philadelphia and went on to work for Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York. He also served as the deputy governor for Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, who was later disgraced, until 2006. After a stint at Lehman Bros., shortly before it imploded, he was tapped to run Michael Bloomberg’s campaign for a third term for New York City mayor in 2009. He became an influential adviser to Bloomberg after his victory; the mayor, in turn, became a mentor to Tusk. In 2010, soon after the campaign, he started his own public relations and lobbying firm, Tusk Strategies. “We’re expensive. We’re intense,” its website reads.

The Bloomberg administration was synonymous with “corporate power”, said Michael Krasner, a former professor of political science at Queens College and the co-director of the Taft Institute for Government and Civic Education. The mayor’s pro-development policies, including tax breaks for large businesses, profoundly changed the character of the city. Critics have long accused the Bloomberg administration — which presided over 120 rezonings and the construction of more than 40,000 buildings — of ushering in an era of extreme inequality, when huge glass towers went up and New York transformed into a soulless “Potemkin village of what the city used to be”, as historian Jeremiah Moss argues in his book “Vanishing New York”. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of bookstores in Manhattan reportedly declined from 204 to 135.

The bookstore, which opened in May, is the culmination of what Tusk describes as a lifelong love affair with the written word. Books offered Tusk “sanctuary,” he said, from bullies during his middle-class upbringing on Long Island and in Sheepshead Bay in New York. He majored in creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania before pursuing politics.

“My thought was, I was a good enough writer to make a living writing sitcoms, that was kind of my talent,” he said. (Tusk has never written for a sitcom.) “I’m never going to win a National Book Award. I would never win the Nobel Prize. I would never write a bestseller.”

Over the last decade, he has returned to writing, penning regular columns in business publications like Inc. and Fast Company. He also published a memoir in 2018 titled “The Fixer: My Adventures Saving Startups From Death by Politics.” It has sold 3,921 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan, though that number might soon tick up: On a recent visit to the shop, the book was prominently featured in the New York City section, its bright yellow cover facing outward.

The title of the book is a reference to Tusk’s time working for Uber founder Travis Kalanick, who hired Tusk for counsel in 2010 as his startup battled local governments and taxi companies, including in New York. Tusk lobbied on Uber’s behalf for the next five years and helped the company steamroll regulation efforts by Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council, enlisting drivers and riders to pressure the city. At one point, the Uber app even added a mocking “de Blasio mode” button, which changed the estimated wait time for a ride to 25 minutes and encouraged riders to “Say ‘NO’ to de Blasio’s Uber.”

Tusk’s dalliance with New York’s literary scene began during the early days of the pandemic in 2020, when he and Howard Wolfson — a friend and another former Bloomberg consigliere — started the Gotham Book Prize, which awards $50,000 annually to the author of a book about the city. The first winner was the novel “Deacon King Kong” by James McBride in 2021, followed by New York Times reporter Andrea Elliott’s nonfiction book “Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City” this year.

Tusk characterized the store as a “microcosm” of one of his favorite policy proposals: universal basic income, which he has advocated at length, especially through Yang’s mayoral campaign. P&T Knitwear offers higher wages than other bookstores do, he said, and provides workers with the same extensive health benefits given to employees at his venture fund.

 “I’ve had all this luck,” Tusk said. “That’s sort of the back story behind the store.” He described a chain of good fortune, stretching from his family surviving the Holocaust and moving to America all the way to his decision to accept payment from Uber in equity rather than cash. The store is just one facet of a broad program of charitable works, he said, including pushing bills nationwide that mandate school breakfast programs and funding a soup kitchen on 16th Street. “This is just one person doing whatever feels right to me,” he said, “but this is how I’m going about it.”

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