It's easy to limit your bookstore experience to the Penn Barnes & Noble (and let's be real, that's mostly for bursar–ing sweatshirts). But many corners of Penn's campus house quirky, specialized and instagrammable bookstores. Let's branch out.
HOUSE OF OUR OWN (3920 Spruce)
There are books everywhere in this cozy Victorian townhouse: books of all types, but especially books you wouldn’t find anywhere else. They're organized in categories of increasing specificity nestled in two floors’ worth of nooks and crannies. Plan on spending at least twice as long (and perhaps three times as much) as you’d intended to spend here; for the inveterate book-browser, this shop is paradise.The selection is rather academic, and heavy in the social sciences, journalism, and political theory, but you could probably find anything here—for a sampler, check out their stoop sale ($1/$2/$3 books) on a sunny day. (If that sounds like it couldn’t be any better, get this: the owners are very pleasant and very knowledgeable. They’ll find whatever you need, making order out of seeming chaos, and if you pop in more than once, they’ll remember you.)
THE LAST WORD (220 S. 40th)
This bookstore strikes a perfect balance between accessibility and sheer variety—it’s easy to pop in and out if you’re looking for something specific, but it’s just as easy to browse endlessly, with titles stacked on the floor and on top of already-towering bookshelves. (NPR often plays in the background, so you can get your daily dose of either news or smooth jazz, depending on the time of day.) Of note are the comics in the front (in single issues and trade paperbacks): the selection is uniquely large for a shop that doesn’t bill itself as a comics store. Naturally, no discussion of The Last Word would be complete without mention of Lester, the resident feline, who can often be found grooming himself in the Anthropology section.
PENN BOOK CENTER (130 S. 34th)
It’s possible that you’ve only been in here to pick up course books for your humanities classes, but you can also pick up books to further your personal academic interests— either by buying books for cool-sounding classes you’re not enrolled in (shhhh) or by exploring the carefully-curated nonfiction section on the second floor. If you can’t find a book, the helpful staff will happily spend as much time as necessary locating it for you. The prices are accordingly high, as the books are brand-new and mostly special-interest (i.e. not mass–market)—but if you catch a sidewalk sale, you can walk away with a real bargain.
PENN BOOKSTORE (3601 Walnut)
This is simply your standard Barnes and Noble, but slightly smaller, as so much space is devoted to apparel, course books, school supplies, and the like. Nobody would call the selection “quirky,” and nobody would call the atmosphere “cozy,” but if you’re not looking for quirkiness or coziness—say you just want to pre-order Arundhati Roy’s much-hyped new novel—then this is the place to go in University City. It’s also a great place to come if you missed out on last year’s New York Times bestsellers, as there are so often (small, but not insignificant) deals on popular fiction.
FREE LIBRARY OF PHILADELPHIA (201 S. 40th)
Reading books doesn’t have to be an expensive hobby. If you play your (library) cards right, it’s actually completely free. (Crazy, right?) Sure, you can probably find any book in the world at Van Pelt, but if you’re sick of going into VP’s lonely, foreboding stacks, and if you long for the community feel of your public library back home, consider getting a library card at the Walnut Street West branch of the Free Library. You’ll have access to any book in the Free Library system, which covers most fiction and popular nonfiction, from any decade. If you are looking to buy books, though, you’ll actually find pretty rad sales of extra inventory on the first floor. The selection is limited, obviously, but paperbacks are just 50 cents, hardcovers one dollar, and there’s a good mix of the familiar and the weird.