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The Independent Bookstore, as Imagined by a Corporate Lobbyist

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Sitting at the bar in the exclusive Delta Club at Citi Field, where his beloved Mets were in the process of sweeping the Yankees in the Subway Series, the political fixer and venture capitalist Bradley Tusk described his designs on the future.

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.

Credit…Christopher Gregory for The New York Times

But his latest project is set firmly in the present and relies on very old technology. Mr. 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 bookshop, P&T Knitwear, sits on a stretch of blocks packed wall to wall with stores aimed at tourists and 20-somethings: clothing boutiques selling secondhand streetwear, restaurants lit with garish neon signs and quasi-legal weed dispensaries. The new shop shares an address with the Hotel Indigo, whose fancy rooftop club, Mr. Purple, is popular with TikTok influencers.

The 3,000-square-foot 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 the debut novelist Mecca Jamilah Sullivan and the poet Topaz Winters. At one recent talk, the 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 the CNN host Brian Stelter; the political and corporate publicists Risa Heller and Stu Loeser; and Matthew Hiltzik, another communications fixer whose clients have included the likes of Hillary Clinton, Glenn Beck and Johnny Depp.

The political crowd was a more familiar one than the literary crowd for Mr. 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, Mr. Tusk interned for Mayor Ed Rendell of Philadelphia and went on to work for Senator 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 Brothers, 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 Mr. Bloomberg after his victory; the mayor, in turn, became a mentor to Mr. 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 the 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 Mr. Tusk describes as a lifelong love affair with the written word. Books offered Mr. 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. (Mr. 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 best seller.”

Over the last decade, he has returned to writing, penning regular columns in business publications like Inc. and Fast Company. (A recent headline: “We need to put regulations on the metaverse now. Here’s where to start.”) He also published a memoir in 2018 titled “The Fixer: My Adventures Saving Start-Ups 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 Mr. Tusk’s time working for the Uber founder Travis Kalanick, who hired Mr. Tusk for counsel in 2010 as his start-up battled local governments and taxi companies, including in New York. Mr. 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.”

Mr. Tusk was paid in equity, which was reported to be worth around $100 million after Uber went public; in 2017, he sold most of his stake to a consortium of investors led by SoftBank.

“His fight to get Uber established in the city married his new venture capital orientation with old-fashioned political moves, and brought about a victory that’s probably terrible for air quality and traffic congestion, but pretty awesome for Brad Tusk,” Errol Louis, the host of “Inside City Hall” at NY1 and a columnist for New York Magazine, wrote in an email.

The experience left a deep impression on Mr. Tusk; he is working on his first novel, which follows “a campaign to legalize flying cars in New York, L.A. and Austin,” he said. “On one side are the V.C.s and the start-ups and their political team,” he continued. “On the other side are Uber and taxis united against it, with the Audubon Society, the transit unions, the socialists and the Russian mob.” His agent is sending the manuscript to publishers this month.

Mr. Tusk’s ride-share windfall provided the seed money for an investment fund, Tusk Venture Partners, which he founded in 2016. It also burnished his reputation with potential clients — often young start-ups navigating the choppy waters of regulation, such as Eaze, a cannabis firm, and FanDuel, a sports betting platform.

Last year, Mr. Tusk briefly dipped back into politics to help guide an unsuccessful New York City mayoral run by Andrew Yang, the politician who perhaps most closely shares his corporate-friendly, technocratic belief in solving social problems with private sector innovation. (The campaign was managed by Sasha Ajuha, who worked for Tusk Strategies at the time, and Chris Coffey, the firm’s chief executive; Mr. Tusk called Mr. Yang an “empty vessel” at one point during the campaign.)

Mr. 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 the New York Times reporter Andrea Elliott’s nonfiction book “Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City” this year.

“Our thinking,” Mr. Tusk said, “was if New York can maintain the mystique of being the place that talented people from all over the world, of any background, say, ‘I want to be there,’ the city’s always going to be OK.”

Later in 2020, with commercial rents tanking, he saw an opportunity to expand his literary footprint.

Mr. Tusk landed on the peculiar name of what would become his bookstore through serendipity. In 1952, Mr. Tusk’s grandfather Hymie Tusk and a partner named Mike Pudlo, both Holocaust survivors, opened a clothing store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Early on in the process, Mr. Tusk texted his father to ask where in the area his grandfather’s store had been — just around the corner on Allen Street, it turned out. He asked for its name. “P&T Knitwear,” his father wrote, adding, “But you can’t name a bookstore P&T Knitwear.”

Mr. Tusk’s response: “We are now definitely calling this thing P&T Knitwear.”

It’s a transitional moment for New York bookstores. New shops — like Yu & Me Books in Chinatown and Leaves in Greenpoint — have opened, while beloved haunts like Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books in Greenwich Village have gone under, courtesy of the pandemic’s decimation of foot traffic and the surging rents that followed. Selling books is a low-margin business sensitive to economic turbulence.

Mr. Tusk’s store, though, is safe from market pressures: He is fine with losing money for the foreseeable future, he said. “I’m much more empathetic to bookstore owners than I was before,” he said, “because we don’t have to make it on the merits here.”

“It’s certainly a different way of going about it,” Jessica Stockton-Bagnulo, the owner of Greenlight Books, said in an interview. “Most of the bookstore owners I know are making their living from the store.” But, she added, she had “no beef with doing it that way either.”

Running the bookstore, Mr. Tusk said, is his way of giving back to the city. “If the community feels like they really got something of value, and people feel like it’s a place on their itinerary, and we’re not losing tons of money, that would be awesome,” he said.

It is an approach that he said was inspired by Mr. Bloomberg’s philanthropic and political ventures that satisfy “an obligation to society.”

To up the civic value, Mr. Tusk built a podcast studio that is free for anyone to use. (He records his own tech podcast, “Firewall,” there.)

“I’d love it to just be one of those places that every guidebook in New York City says, ‘You got to stop by P&T Knitwear,’ and people say, ‘I love hanging out there,’” Mr. Tusk said.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Of course, wages and regular government paychecks are different, but Mr. Tusk compared their underlying financial mechanisms: “It’s a wealth transfer from me to the employees,” he said. (A spokesperson later clarified that the starting salary was $20 an hour, and that the company covered medical and dental care to the tune of $1,000 per employee per month. A review of job openings at several bookstores in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago found starting salaries listed between $16 and $18.50 per hour, and several people working in the books industry said Mr. Tusk’s salaries did seem higher than they were used to seeing.)

Mr. Krasner, the former political science professor, was skeptical of Mr. Tusk’s beneficence. “Historically, this sounds a little bit like Andrew Carnegie giving away shiny dimes and subsidizing public libraries,” he said. “All this happens after the fortune is made and after the social damage is done.” Ms. Heller, the communications strategist, had a different view. “It’s a great New York store devoted to New York stories, what could be bad?!” she wrote in an email. “It’s nice to see Bradley invest in the city when others are not.”

“I’ve had all this luck,” Mr. 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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