For decades, independent bookstores have been facing closures worldwide. With even national chains like Borders shutting their doors, the general belief was that the extinction of secondhand shops is inevitable. Yet despite these predictions, they continue not only to persist, but thrive.
Partly in celebration of that fact, and partly because these stores are really cool and you should go to them, we’re embarking on:
The Great Philadelphia Bookstore Tour!
Was that grand enough? Well, now that our mouthful of a title has been established, I’ll be detailing how to spend a day in Philly hopping from bookstore to bookstore. The perfect day for the introvert who is trying very, very hard to be an extrovert.
Three shops are our target today: The Book Trader, Wooden Shoe Books, and Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room.
(7 N. 2nd St.)
Established in 1975, and open every single day (Except for Christmas and Thanksgiving) from 10 A.M. to 10 P.M., The Book Trader is the epitome of organized chaos.
The moment you step into this store, you’ll be squeezed between two stacks of books on either side. To your left, a cash register labeled “The credit card minimum depends on my mood” (today – $5), to your right, one of the few book displays in the shop.
Daring to venture further into the store is not unlike stepping into the wardrobe from The Chronicles of Narnia; the space seems compact, but the corridors of towering books seem to twist and turn into infinity.
Contributing to the aura of this already unusual shop are the staff and customers. Something about this environment inspires a unique social dynamic that is oftentimes absent in bookstores. There is no pressure to remain silent during your stay. In the half hour I spent interviewing two staff members (self-appointed positions being “lackey” and “shouter”), a man came up asking specifically about books on herbs, a British customer offered to pay with his right shoe when he was a few cents short, and a woman who studied English proudly asked where there might be a dummy’s book on particle physics (go her).
Taking all of this in, I asked the staff about any other unique interactions in the store, to which they replied, “Working here is made up of only interesting moments.”
(704 South St.)
While The Book Trader seemingly aspires to be the new Library of Alexandria with its collection, the 40-year-old Wooden Shoe Books seeks to be a home for underrepresented voices.
With an open floor plan and poster-adorned walls, this anarchist shop allows individuals within the community to drop off their own publications for review. The store is owned collectively, and is almost entirely run by volunteers, a fact which a new worker there says is a source of both amazement and anxiety since they sometimes cannot open the shop at all due to a lack of volunteers. However, according to today’s staff, this has been less of a problem since Wooden Shoe Books moved to their current location. Outside of this, volunteers for their store have increased in general since the presidential election, a fact that, for an anarchist bookstore, feels bittersweet.
Giving back to the community what it takes from it, outside of accepting individual publications, Wooden Shoe Books hosts a variety of events each month – often revolving around poetry. Going even broader than this, the store actively works to promote anarchist bookstores throughout the country, with a map of many of them posted right at the front of the store.
(345 South 12th St.)
Perhaps one of the most historically-rich bookshops in Philadelphia, Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room is America’s longest-running LGBT bookstore. Founded in 1973 by Ed Hermance and Alan Olshan, this location used to be known only as “Giovanni’s Room” and only sold books, at one time being the biggest distributor of gay publishing in the nation. It ran on-and-off with a second shop down the street until the second store closed down, and not long after, the first did as well. It was at this time that Philly AIDS Thrift purchased Giovanni’s Room, saving it from what looked like permanent closure.
Walking into the store, it’s almost difficult to tell that it’s anything but a normal bookstore. The front lobby is entirely dedicated to print works, which surround the front counter and its accompanying kind staff members. Likewise, much of the wall space within the two-floor shop is covered with neat shelves of books, with those that lack them being painted in pastels or featuring art and tapestries.
Only in the open floor space does the new thrift-shop identity of this store become apparent, with racks of clothes and accessories being placed comfortably throughout it. The clothing selection, might I add, is really high quality despite being relatively small. I ended up buying the softest black sweater that has graced this Earth, an item which I had been on a quest to find for the past five months. If anything, the addition of records, clothing, and other trinkets to the store make it appear more like a house than anywhere retail-related; a fitting look considering that many in the LGBT community have, and continue to, consider this place to be a safe, positive home.
Where to Stop for Sweet and Caffeinated Treats:
(1919 Alter St.)
Books and warm drinks are as much of a pair as peanut-butter and jelly, making for the perfect excuse to keep fueling my cute café addiction™ in this column. This coffee shop is a short 11-minute walk away from Wooden Shoe Books, tucked on a street corner. The miniature space is undeniably cozy, with deep green walls, hanging lights, and light wooden furniture. Though their selection of drinks and snacks may seem as small as their store, what they have is high in quality. I ordered a matcha latte along with the biggest damn almond croissant I’ve ever seen. A croissant which was so delicious that it was in my stomach before a photo could be snapped of it.
- Train – $12 round trip
- Greenstreet Coffee Co. – $6.50
- Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room – Excellent $10 sweater