Former Democratic Rep. Steve Israel in his independent bookstore Theodore’s...

Former Democratic Rep. Steve Israel in his independent bookstore Theodore’s Books in Oyster Bay. Credit: Danielle Silverman

Seven years ago, I left national politics to open a small, independent bookstore in Oyster Bay. I used to have an occasional seat in the Oval Office. Now, I occupy a shoddy backroom overrun by cartons of books, the occasional pest (as in mice, not Marjorie Taylor Greene), and merchandise in various stages of receiving, shelving, and returning.

I left Congress — undefeated and unindicted — to purge electoral politics from my system. I came to believe that democratic norms were unlikely to be saved on Capitol Hill but perhaps could be salvaged on our Main Streets. I opened Theodore’s Books to take a different, but no less active, role against the corrosive influences of performative politics and what Congress refers to as “one-minute speeches.” In a complex world, some issues require 300 pages of exploration, rather than a tweet by Elon Musk (though we do sell Walter Isaacson’s biography of him).

The transition has been jarring, the lessons learned profound.

Where politics is about evolution, owning a small business is about adaptation. In politics, positions on issues shift slowly, often behind an electoral wind. In business, you must always be in front of the wind. I mean that literally: One weekend of bad weather can sink a month’s revenue projections. Adaptation means sensing and accommodating changing tastes, unanticipated demand, and logistical challenges, from increased costs to shipping delays.

Politics is about getting to the next election; operating a bookstore is about getting to the next month. There have been weeks we weren’t sure we’d make the next payroll, when foot traffic was so slow I could visualize the tumbleweed. Survival is not a two-year strategy; it’s weekly. And we’re running against the equivalent of a super PAC with unlimited resources: Amazon.

I've also learned my store isn’t about me, it’s about books by Rep. Jamie Raskin (“Unthinkable”) and Sen. Ted Cruz (“Unwoke”). In Washington, there’s little room for a view that doesn’t both promote your party and denounce your opponents. But in my bookshop, I’m required to stock books that may offend me but will suit curiosities across the political spectrum.

Yet in both politics and bookselling, you’ll find the occasional dirty trick and black op. My booksellers and I often notice that titles by certain authors miraculously turn themselves backward on the shelves, so the title isn’t visible. Or are kidnapped from Current Events and hidden in Cookbooks.

Some folks enter the store, take photographs of a book, and order it on Amazon as they’re standing there. Which is like going to a political fundraiser, not paying, eating the shrimp and cocktail franks, and voting for the opposition.

In Congress, when money runs out, they extend the debt ceiling or pass a continuing resolution. There’s no such luxury in a small business. When the money runs out, publishers stop delivering inventory. Like so many households and businesses in America, I’ve got to, well, keep to a budget.

A congressional term is two years. In my two years as a bookseller, I’ve learned as much about politics and America as I learned in my tenure on Capitol Hill. And I’ve found myself growing more optimistic for the future of our country.

Staying in business on Long Island is harder than staying in political office.

These days, I don’t judge success by how many votes I receive, but how often the bell jingles at our front door.

It’s not “Hail to the Chief,” but it’s music to my ears.

This guest essay reflects the views of Steve Israel, who represented Congressional District 3 from 2001 to 2017.

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months