I live in Philadelphia, a wonderful city, vibrant and diverse, with a downtown that thrives after dark and on weekends, with residential neighborhoods that are cosmopolitan here and provincial there. Arts and culture? We have museums to rival those in D.C. or New York. We have restaurants offering every imaginable cuisine. We have a wonderful symphony orchestra and a magnificent concert hall in which to enjoy music. We have opera and theater and sports, lots of sports. We have Wi-Fi, and soon we’ll even have casinos (though hopefully not).
Bookstores? We don’t have so many. We don’t have enough, anyway. Or maybe it’s that I’ve lived here too long and seen too many wither and go. Do we really need bookstores anymore? Can’t we just do it all online? I’ll admit, I’m a fan of internet shopping. I can get anything from anywhere without leaving my chair, and I can get it delivered, overnight, when I’m impatient or last-minute or both. But maybe I’m a Luddite when it comes to browsing, to discovery, which is the real joy and purpose of a good bookstore and which can’t be duplicated virtually, not yet anyway. Sure, I can look inside books electronically at a number of websites. But I can’t hold one in my hands and feel its heft, smell the paper. Or notice that the pages aren’t flat, not really. They have depth. They have texture. I have a very nice wide screen monitor, but I still can’t see the type leap out at me when I stand with my head bent like a scribe while a stream of people flows quietly around me, or sink to the floor in a narrow aisle and give in to serious contemplation.
I think we’ve gone from around twenty to less than five independent bookstores in the city of Philadelphia. I think that’s not acceptable. Unfortunately there’s not much I can do about it. Except maybe frequent the ones that are left. O.k., so I’ll shop online some of the time; but I’ll also take a jaunt outside now and then, get my vitamin D from a little sunlight, peruse an indie bookstore’s offerings, and maybe even buy a few.
My favorite shop? There are two here in Philadelphia I must mention, in case you choose to visit or pass on the information. The first is Robins, which survives, though in a bravely, sadly scaled down version of its former self. Larry Robins is an institution in Philadelphia. His grandfather opened the store in 1936. Larry has been in the book business for more than forty years. Not only that, he’s championed the progressive side of related and relevant causes: censorship, blacklisting, freedom of speech. Tropic of Cancer. The Communist Manifesto. Mein Kampf. Salman Rushdie. All available, always available. Author readings? No place has been kinder or a bigger tent for every style and point of view. Fiction, politics, verse. He’s sponsored it all, and it’s still his store where authors, especially poets, and their Philadelphia audiences still congregate today.
The second store I would recommend is Head House Books, which, after four years, has less history, but not necessarily less charm. Owned and run by Richard de Wyngaert, the store reaches out in every conceivable way to the neighborhood around it in an effort to build literacy, community spirit, and an enjoyable space for browsing or listening to authors live. I have had two readings in the store, and both were graciously hosted, intimate, and well attended. This is the kind of store where a great deal of care goes into decisions about where and how to display books. Wandering Head House, I find that I see many books facing me with their covers, rather than just their spines. This makes my search for the right volume not only easier but more intriguing. It’s easy and enjoyable here to get diverted. Richard has strategically scattered chairs, a great love and knowledge of books, author readings, storytelling for children, and other events for children including a chess club. As a father, I’m glad for a store that isn’t only about sales, and one into which my children often tow me, rather than the other way around. I hope that when they grow up, bookstores like these won’t exist only in the virtual world of memory.