No Death Knell for Philly Bookstores

Larry Robin and Robin’s Books, in better days. Credit: Robin’s Books

Robin’s Books in Philadelphia is going out of business. Again. When Larry Robin joined the family business in the early 1960s — his grandfather had opened the store in 1936 — there were 26 independent bookstores in Center City. Then came the litany of doom that attends every article on this topic: box stores, Amazon, ebooks. Today there are, by my count, four (soon to be three) indie booksellers downtown.

As Robin relates the history of the store — there was the time when the late Sen. Arlen Specter prosecuted the hell out of it for selling Tropic of Cancer — about a dozen people wander in and out, browsing the tremendously discounted stock (90 percent off of whatever is left). “The best way to sell books is to go out of business,” Larry says, chuckling.

But Robin’s fate isn’t necessarily a sign of the times. The store has been struggling for a while and, if Amazon is largely to blame for the precipitous decline in its walk-in trade, the store’s second-floor location didn’t help, either. (Even I, a used book fiend, didn’t notice it until I’d been in Philly for two years.) The other Philly booksellers I spoke with were less than enthusiastic about the Kindle Fire, but they have no plans to close down.

“Ebooks have hurt,” says Michael Fox, owner of Joseph Fox, which sells high-end literature and non-fiction. “But we’ll stay open as long as I want to.” Art Bourgeau, owner of the mystery-focused Whodunit Books, says in-store sales have actually increased in recent years after a period, beginning in 2002, when he sold more books online and walk-in trade dropped off dramatically. Molly’s Books and Records, which opened 10 years ago Italian Market, reports a brisk business that’s been getting better every year. Last Word Bookshop is situated on a busy block across the street from the University of Pennsylvania campus with substantial foot traffic; owner Larry Maltz says business is cranking along nicely with new customers every day and a core of regulars.

And it isn’t just in Philadelphia where indie bookstores are surviving in the age of Amazon. “After years of [membership] decline, we’ve seen an increase over the last three years with new stores opening in all regions,” says Dan Cullen of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), with an additional 55 added to the rolls in the last year.

“Based on the sales of more than 500 independent bookstores reporting to the weekly Indie Bestseller List, we have seen consistent double-digit unit sales growth of books over last year, and we expect to end the year up very strongly,” Cullen noted in a later email.

Last Thursday the New York Daily News reported, from ABA sources: “This year, newly opened mom-and-pop stores nationwide have helped fuel a double-digit sales increase after years of declines.” In New York City, this resurgence has been particularly marked in Brooklyn, where new bookstores have been opening in many (mostly gentrifying) neighborhoods. The Greenlight Bookstore is a particularly interesting example: It opened in 2009 with capital raised in the community as future consumers provided start-up capital in exchange for steep future discounts. It was so successful that it expanded in 2011.

“There is more to buying things than getting the cheapest price, there is having this communal human social experience,’ Greenlight owner Jessica Bagnulo said on a recent episode of MSNBC’s Up With Chris. “There is going to a store where you are going to meet your neighbors, where you are going to talk to people who know you. An environment that’s designed around people rather than packing in as much product as possible. We work on creating this space that people want to be in. That’s a big part of what we are selling as well as the books on the shelves.”

Philly owners agree that the ambiance and experience of pawing through tottering great towers of books, with intent to buy, is a big part of their continued survival. When asked why Whodunit’s in-store sales have increased so greatly in recent years, Bourgeau shrugged. “People discovered they missed browsing in bookstores,” he said.

“It’s like the Slow Food movement. Our customers have e-readers, but really enjoy the atmosphere of a bookstore,” says Debbie Sanford, co-owner of A House of Our Own, a used and new bookstore on Spruce Street with a stunning collection of sociology, literature and especially history. “We provide an eclectic selection of quality, high-end used books. We’re creating a space where people feel comfortable browsing. More than ever, we’re really enjoying our customers.”

Some areas of the city are a stronger bet for sustaining an independent bookstore, which requires a delicate balance of affordable rent, sustained foot traffic and adjacent communities of bibliophiles with spending money. Storefront space in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, for instance, can undoubtedly be obtained for a song. But the area is mired in poverty and crime, and consumer dollars are scarce. While pedestrian-friendly Center City may seem ideal with its growing and highly educated population, rents have soared in recent years: When Whodunit opened in 1977, rent was about $6 per square foot. Today it is $40 per square foot, an increase that significantly outpaces inflation.

Bookstores in Manhattan have been struggling with similar circumstances. Most famous at the moment is St. Mark’s Bookshop in the East Village, which has survived through fierce customer loyalty and grassroots campaigns: Petitions for lower rent and cash mobs to bolster sales.

Downtown adjacent neighborhoods with cheaper rents and fresh crops of younger urban professionals are more ideal. “The neighborhood has really changed, for a while it was emptying out, everyone was moving to Center City, but now there are people staying here after college or moving down from New York,” says Greg Schirn, co-owner of A House of Our Own, which is sandwiched between Penn’s campus and the booming Baltimore Avenue corridor in West Philly. “Our clientele has changed. There are a lot more young people.”

New bookstores are popping up throughout Brooklyn for similar reasons. To put it a bit more impolitely, they are surviving for the “Same reason why there’s an artisanal mayonnaise store: Gentrifying neighborhoods with people with disposable income, indie fetish,” tweeted Bhaskar Sunkara, editor and founder of Jacobin magazine, a left-wing journal based in New York.

In short, Robin’s long demise is hardly a death kneel for independent bookstores in Philadelphia. While many of the owners I spoke with were gray of hair and long of tooth, there are a number of new bookstores that have sprouted up in recent years, too. The aforementioned mentioned Molly’s has a stellar collection of old pulp novels and interesting editions of classic literature (along with great records). The well-stocked Head House Books, on 2nd Street, opened in 2005, while Brickbat Books, which opened in 2006, has an amazing selection and an owner with an impressively extensive literary knowledge.

And, as a guy who spends ungodly amounts of time at his computer, I can attest that browsing their shelves is worth far more to me than the convenience of next day delivery.

Tags: philadelphia, books, amazon, third spaces, arlen specter, american booksellers association, book stores