Philadelphia’s Mostly Books

History tells us that in the mid-18th century there were over 75 bookshops, printers, and stationers’ shops in Philadelphia, making it the undisputed publishing centre of the Thirteen Colonies. This was the reason that a young printer’s apprentice—or “printer’s devil” in the argot of the period, due to stray ink blackening their exposed skin—named Benjamin Franklin travelled there from Boston, and also the reason that the burgeoning movement for independence chose the city as its eventual headquarters, with its emphasis on the publication and dissemination of pamphlets, broadsides, periodicals, and declarations of every stripe. It became the epicentre of an emergent local literary culture, which saw the publication of books ranging from Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac (as well as his Autobiography) to the groundbreaking work of Charles Brockden Brown, one of the earliest authors of an emergent North American fiction distinct from its English precursors.

Today, a little over two and a half centuries later, Philadelphia’s once-vibrant literary culture has declined drastically from its halcyon heyday. Barring the affiliated bookstores of the major universities, there are only a handful of bookstores still operating in the Center City area, and even fewer to the north, west, and south across the city’s vast urban sprawl. Of the handful of bookstores left in the city, only a couple of them are in the business of selling new books, and one of those is a Barnes and Noble on the north side of Rittenhouse Square—only good for the latest units of dysenteric text spewed out by the likes of HarperCollins and faithfully lauded to the skies by the New York Times bestseller list.

The other bookstore in the Rittenhouse Square area is the Joseph Fox Bookshop on Sansom Street, which has been in business since 1952 and is the oldest family-owned, continuously-operated independent bookshop in Philadelphia. Even though it does specialize in expensive and hard-to-obtain specialty architectural titles, it does also carry a wide selection of popular (and, thankfully, not-so-popular) fiction, from the latest titles trumpeted on NPR to European noir detective thrillers, to a splendid selection of the Penguin Classics. The Joseph Fox Bookshop has managed to stay in business for over six decades due to its faithful client base—the majority of these clients being elderly individuals with a great deal of money, a powerful lust for print media, and little or no inclination (or need) to understand how the Internet actually works. This is an ideal situation for handling special orders, but also one that will not last forever, as the customer base inevitably dwindles and is not renewed by a younger book-buying demographic, accustomed as the latter is by now to online shopping and eBook downloads. Like all brick-and-mortar bookshops, its days are numbered, and while the members of its astonishingly young (and astonishingly well-read) staff are doing all that they can to attract new blood and stock higher-quality titles (including, recently, two very complete lines of both New Directions and Melville House titles—to add to their excellent NYRB line), there isn’t much that can be done now to counteract the decades-long impact of the Internet on the way that every type of intellectual content is now sold to the buying public.

As author Scott Timberg painstakingly elucidates in his recent book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class (Yale University Press, 2015), the overall effect of websites like Amazon has been to drive traditional storefront, small-scale retailers out of business. As Timberg grimly points out, the steady elimination of these independent retailers—not just booksellers, but music stores, art supply stores, comic book stores, and similar places—has not only taken away the physical spaces where aspiring artists and writers once congregated to share ideas and influences, but has also robbed these same artists of the jobs necessary to support themselves, especially within the context of an increasingly expensive urban environment. Without such critical support, there can be no future urban literary or artistic culture—a state of affairs which just about sums up Philadelphia these days.

It is important to note that the bookstore population in Philadelphia is an aging one, both in terms of ownership and in terms of clientele. The majority of the Joseph Fox Bookshop’s steady customers are elderly. The owners of three other bookstores in the Center City area—Bookhaven, The Book Trader, and Mostly Books—are all over sixty years of age. Another used bookstore, Brickbat Books (on south Third Street in the Queen Village neighborhood), specializes in high-quality rare books and first editions and is therefore geared more toward older collectors who can afford the higher prices—and who tend to shop online from afar, more often than not. The effect of this overall aging process is to separate any young urban cultural aspirants from any potential physical nexus, especially when it comes to books.

While several attempts at an artistic/literary community do exist in Philadelphia (as distinct from university-specific student groups)—the Apiary Collective springs to mind, with the motto “Written By Humans” proudly displayed on their website—these are primarily based online, with semi-annual gatherings at large-scale venues around the city. They disseminate their own work and are not affiliated with any particular bookstores. Public reading events held at bookstores are organized on a case-by-case basis, and only occur a few times per year. Most of the local bookstores are too small in terms of space to host readings on a weekly basis. Joseph Fox Bookshop, for instance, while it does support local authors by selling their work, is simply far too narrow for any kind of hosted presentation.

The future of any potential literary arts scene in Philadelphia is not good. As an aging customer base quietly evaporates and employment opportunities for the artistic class vanish, the result is an economic downward spiral that should inexorably eliminate any and all of the remaining bookstores in Philadelphia within the next 20 years. Whatever scene might then exist will be dependent solely upon online shopping and eBook downloads—or, in other words, dependent upon the very technological and marketing forces that deprived the city’s writers and artists of cultural outlets, gathering places, and opportunities for arts-based livelihood. This economic paradox may very well end up driving potential creators out of the city entirely. Literature is going somewhere else now—it is fleeing the old urban centres of the northeastern United States, driven by the irresistible bean-counting logic of the free market, even as the nascent writers of our society are being soundly spanked by the Invisible Hand. Who knows where it will migrate for survival? Perhaps the crumbling, overgrown remnants of the repossessed suburbs?

One Comment

Patrick R

I buy books on Amazon because the bookstores have all shut down because I buy books on Amazon.

Whatever scene exists is certainly going to be online, divorced from the culture of any one city or region, and the exchanges between its members will be primarily of the short form, 140-character variety. The medium that bled the bookstores dry will not be hospitable to the refugees from the institutions it vitiated.


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