June 23-29, 2005
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Summer Book Quarterly '05
It's the cat that gives them away. There it is, perched at the register or sprawled over a computer monitor. Or maybe it's curled up, lazily shedding all over an old chair or a pile of new acquisitions. Or maybe it's always underfoot, wrapping itself around your legs while you're browsing the travel shelves.
Spot a cat, and you know you're not in Borders anymore.
And that's just fine with countless readers, who savor the kind of laid-back atmosphere and inimitable character of an independently run shop. Here, you can strike up a conversation with one of the employees, who are generally not bored postcollegiates sporting IDs on lanyards. They're people very often the owners themselves who care deeply about books and the stuff inside them. And lucky for you, they know books. Sure, sometimes they keep weird hours and maybe it takes more than two minutes to find what you're looking for, but for the most part, indie bookstores provide the kind of cozy atmosphere and personalized service you're just not going to find in a fluorescent-lit chain at the mall.
City Paper's crew of book lovers trolled the streets and discovered their favorite shops in the city, old and new. We discovered that from the Rosenbachs to the Russakoffs, Philadelphia's book scene is sometimes a family affair. We also learned that the indie establishment (is that an oxymoron?) is showing no signs of fading away.
Mike Newall found a promising little hole-in-the-wall off Rittenhouse Square called Famulus, with a past in the meats-and-provisions business and a classical music soundtrack. And in just a week or so, Angela Roach will open Voices & Visions Books Arts Community in the lower level of the Bourse building. Roach comes from a background in books but on the advertising sales end, running corporate book fairs like Books Are Fun. She's always thought books were fun; opening her own store's been a dream for 20 years. "There's a place for everybody in this world Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble," says Roach. "But all their buying is done at a central office somewhere in Minnesota or something, and they're buying for the whole country. In this situation, you're going to get to know your customer base and your market." Roach wants to cater to the city's arts community, both in stock (selling plays and books on photography) and services (hosting discussion groups with the Philadelphia Film Society and staying open late on First Fridays).
Also in this issue, Natalie Hope McDonald talked to Philly bookshop owners past and present about trying to keep up with online competition and behemoth bookstores, and found that it's a combination of determination and customer loyalty that keeps the indies alive. And Jenna Portnoy went hunting for the stuff stuck in the pages of those old college books you brought to Big Jar or Bookhaven.
So maybe we don't always need the gift cards, the fancy chocolates and the overpriced mochaccinos. Sometimes what we want is a ratty chair, a needy cat and a book we didn't know we wanted till we saw it.