On an autumn afternoon in 1971, two students and two German Shepherds walked into the office of Penn Provost Curtis Reitz.
The students explained to Reitz that Penn had a problem. In an already chaotic time, campus-wide construction had left many of their peers feeling alienated.
Increasing numbers of students were coming to Penn's draft counseling office, where the pair worked, to ask how transferring would affect their status as draft-exempt full-time students.
They had conducted a study, sponsored by Dean of Students Alice Emerson, and found a high demand for more places on campus that were small and pleasant and felt like home.
The solution, the students told the provost, was a student-run bookstore and craft workshop. Books are friendly, they said. People without social skills can come in and manage to fade into the bookshelves and feel comfortable.
They had picked out the ideal spot, an abandoned University-owned house on the 3900 block of Spruce Street. It has to be a house, they said. A house for students. A house of our own.
No University money was required. The students pledged to renovate the property and raise the necessary funds. What they needed was the provost's permission and a zoning variance.
"When we walked out of the provost's office, we walked out with an agreement," Deborah Sanford recalls today. "He listened and he loved the dogs. He got right down on the floor and played with the dogs on the Oriental rug and he said, "This is a wonderful idea."
So Sanford and her husband, Phil Scranton, set to work. "It sounds odd today, but we had no long-term perspective whatsoever. Most people didn't think about careers. We thought about having interesting experiences."
Scranton was a graduate student in the History Department at the time; Sanford had graduated from the College in the spring, but was still taking classes in preparation for Veterinary School. Now, both were in the bookstore business, too.
* * *
Thirty years later, Deborah Sanford is still standing behind the counter at House of Our Own. It is not the same counter, nor the same cash register, and the selection of books is greatly expanded. The original used-book collection now resides on the second floor. The craft workshop closed long ago and a second husband, Greg Schirm, has taken Phil's place.
From the get-go, House of Our Own depended upon the support of the surrounding community. The belief that people can help each other was a daring thing to invest in; the fact that people did made it work.
Thirty years later, that original community has moved on, and House of Our Own is struggling to build a new relationship with a new generation of students.
The measure of the recent struggles is ultimately financial, if only because the store's survival depends on its ability to pay its rent.
That has proven difficult in the first year of a five-year lease. And Deborah Sanford knows that the financial pressures will only get worse if the store does not become more profit-conscious.
But 30 years later, Deborah Sanford still believes she would rather go out of business than allow finances to dictate how she runs her store.
The Knowledge Business
When House of Our Own opened, the only place you could buy books was at a bookstore. Mainstream bookstores carried mainstream books. House of Our Own aimed to carry everything else.
"There was a sense that there were so many books being published that weren't actually available in stores," Sanford recalls. "Books that were necessities to people if they were going to be useful and informed in the service of social change."
The arrival of the Internet changed that equation forever, but Sanford believes that stores like hers still offer something more than online booksellers. "The mere acquisition of any book is no longer problematic. But there's a level of impersonality and a utilitarian quality about the online book-buying experience," she says.
A Web site is no place to spend a rainy afternoon. You can't heft a book with your mouse, or read a final chapter as you lean against your desk. You can't walk your eyes down a row of spines, waiting for something to catch your eye. And you'll never find yourself in a section you didn't mean to be in reading a book you didn't mean to find.
Web sites don't care how you're feeling or how your thesis is coming. There is nothing warm and friendly about the fact that Amazon.com knows your name. The site won't suggest unlikely alternatives when your first choice is out of stock. And no Web page smells like a bookstore should.
Herman Beavers, an English professor, walked into the store one afternoon with a student named Terrence in tow. As they enter the store, Beavers can be heard explaining that the store is "Cool... One of the only independent bookstores on campus. I can never walk out of here empty-handed."
After a while, the student wanders up to the counter with his selection. Beavers follows him with a stack of seven books. As he reaches for his wallet, Beavers reflects, "I really just came over here to introduce Terrence to the bookstore, and I said, Oh, I'm not going to buy anything.' Yeah, right."
Just then, Joe, the UPS delivery man, strolls into the store with a package in tow. As he extends his clipboard to Sanford, she says, "Hey, [Beavers] thinks we shouldn't buy all of these books, too much temptation. So maybe I shouldn't sign for them?" Then she does anyway, with a smile. "OK Joe, have a good day."
"People are afraid of [browsing]," Sanford says later. "They act as if they're double-parked. Sometimes, they'll say, I'm being good.' And the definition of good is as if they're not letting themselves have chocolate.
"We should have a rule that you're not allowed to come into the store unless you have 10 minutes to browse and relax."
Investing in People
People were not always so afraid to browse. The '70s were a time of genuine hunger for printed matter. "People never went anywhere without a book," Sanford remembers. "There was an intellectual quality to life. It wasn't a kind of stylized quality where you dressed in black. People were really reading."
Reading was not just a leisure-time activity. Knowledge was power, and people wanted to know. Scranton and Sanford saw their bookstore as an attempt to give people access to the knowledge they needed to change the world.
"It was a politically progressive store in the context of a politically active society," Sanford recalls. "We had a sense that change needed to happen, that it could happen, and that it would happen. And anything you could do would help toward building a better society."
The bookstore project had wide communal support in those early years. Faculty, students and staff lined up to purchase $2 "shares," redeemable for books once the store opened. The proceeds covered the cost of renovations.
Some went further, volunteering their time and labor. There was much to be done. The stairwells were trash-filled and drywalls endlessly subdivided the original rooms, a reminder of the building's previous life as fraternity housing. There was no heat and no electricity, so Scranton, Sanford and their friends worked by candlelight through the fall.
Building supplies came from auctions and discards, hauled to the house in a surplus postal truck. Building permits were honored by their absence. And help sometimes came from the least likely sources.
One day, Sanford found herself bemoaning the building's wiring problems to a homeless man named Chief who lived on the corner of 39th and Walnut streets. Much to her surprise, Chief announced that he was an electrician and would be happy to fix up the wiring.
On the appointed day, Chief showed up promptly at ' a.m. with his tools, totally sober, and put in the electricity as promised.
Sanford still smiles when she tells the story. "It was the only time I ever saw him sober."
The bookstore and workshop opened its doors in December. With the focus on disseminating knowledge rather than accumulating profits, Sanford and Scranton relied on a few non-traditional business practices.
Rather than close up shop, the couple would prop a "Self-Service Today" sign on the keys of the old manual cash register when they had to go to class. The sign also made a weekly appearance on Saturday mornings, when Sanford, Scranton and their friends would head to College Green for a few hours of soccer. "When we came back," Sanford recalls, "the store would be filled with people and they would be lined up, ringing up their purchases, making change for each other."
A quarter-per-book rack that the couple left outside on summer nights enjoyed an equally honorable clientele. "We'd put the books along the front garden... and when we'd come in the morning, there would be quarters through the mail slot and a stack of quarters in the corner of the shelf."
The community rewarded their faith by lending a hand, time and again. The store has always used donated plastic bags to pack orders. When Hurricane Floyd caused a shortage of bags in 1998--Sanford had been using them to protect people and backpacks as well as books--one couple drove in from Broomall, Pa., to deliver an emergency shipment. "They said their daughter was at Penn," Sanford recalls. "She had told them that we needed bags."
Another long-standing tradition stemmed from the frequent runs Scranton and Sanford would make to used-book auctions in Washington, D.C. The couple would haul thousands of books back to Spruce Street in a used truck. When they would pull up outside the store, people would begin to gather.
"Everyone knew we had been to an auction, and people would come along to help. People would be in the truck sorting books and people you didn't know would pick up a box and they would help."
The Highest and Best Use
The building into which the books were carried, 3920 Spruce Street, began life as a dignified townhouse in a comfortable single-family streetcar neighborhood called Hamilton Village largely populated by the children of Italian immigrants.
By the early 1970s, however, 3920 sat on the edge of campus, halfway down a Penn-owned block of buildings housing fraternities displaced from the center of campus; across the street, Superblock rose on land cleared by eminent domain and sold to the University for a nominal fee.
Penn's most recent wave of expansion was grinding to a halt for lack of funds, and a decline in fraternity membership had left the building uninhabited. There was no reason for Penn to say no when Sanford and Scranton came knocking.
But Penn's real estate department lives by a motto: secure the highest and best use for each building on campus. And low-rent independent bookstores have never been high on the list.
In 1975, Penn told House of Our Own that it was giving the building to the Engineering School for a solar energy project. The decision forced the crafts workshop, which resided on the third floor, to close. But unbeknownst to the owners, the wife of Martin Meyerson, University president at the time, was a House of Our Own customer. She convinced her husband to allow House of Our Own to remain open on the first and second floors. With its focus now solely on selling books, the store began carrying new books later that year.
A combination of economic malaise and endowment woes provided shelter from further expansion attempts over the next decade. It would be a second golden age for the store, a time when renewed intellectual interest in topics like critical theory and women's studies propelled an expansion of the new book collection, which was moved to the first floor in 1984.
By the late '80s, however, the economic situation had improved and the University was looking to grow again. The bookstore at 3920, which by then had survived far longer than anyone had expected, was a natural target.
In 1987, Penn gave the store a short-term lease, but warned Sanford and Schirm that the end was near. Two years later, in August, 1989, she received a letter informing her that the University would be converting the building into housing for fraternities.
On October 2, The Daily Pennsylvanian ran a front page story under the headline, "House of Our Own offered to pay more/ U. reportedly has not responded to letter." Though Penn had said repeatedly that the issue was not the rent but the need for the property, the story embarrassed Chris van de Velde, the Real Estate director, into negotiating.
Sanford recalls what happened next: "The next day, we get a call from Chris asking if we can talk... We put him on a stool by this wobbly piece of wood that used to be the counter and we talked. And while we were talking, this stream of people kept coming in. He sat there and I watched him sort of soften.... I really got the sense that he had finally figured it out."
Instant Karma wasn't the only thing working in the store's favor. Campus fraternities had fallen from public favor after a series of incidents involving the presence of strippers at pledge events and a state police raid that found several hundred thousand dollars worth of drugs at one fraternity.
Support for the bookstore had also been tremendous, particularly among faculty and graduate students. Both the Faculty Senate and the University Council had passed resolutions of support.
In the end, it was enough. Penn agreed to give House of Our Own a 10-year cut-rate lease in recognition of the store's intellectual contributions to the campus community.
It was a milestone for the store. In a show of continued support, many members of the faculty began giving Sanford their textbook orders. Between coordinating those orders and meeting the higher rent payments, running the store was becoming a full-time job for Sanford and Schirm. For the first time, it became their major source of income as well.
Students were far less grateful for the increase in textbook orders. And while Sanford continued to believe that her greatest success was "the engineering student who walks in and wants to buy a book," students of all kinds were frequenting the store in diminishing numbers.
A Relic of Past Times
House of Our Own secured a five-year extension of its lease in 1999, but this time, the University did not discount the rent for intellectual contributions. Sanford will only say that the rate increase was "astronomical."
It came as Internet retailers continued to sap the store's revenue-producing textbook trade. And though staying in the black is necessary if the store is to survive, Sanford has existential concerns as well. House of Our Own set out to make knowledge accessible, and the implicit condition has always been that people would want to access that knowledge.
"People say we need more bookstores on campus," Sanford muses. "But do we? Why isn't this place mobbed? There are 20,000 students at Penn. More of them should be in here more of the time. Lots of them come in to buy course books, but we should see more Penn students coming in on a discretionary basis."
But this outward frustration conceals a deeper awareness of the reasons that so few students wander into the store.
Sanford has always vacationed by visiting bookstores in other places. She has seen the ways in which independents have adjusted to modern times, working to create an intimate and enjoyable customer experience.
She has seen the book reviews many stores post, the recommendation shelves they compile, the free coffee they provide.
She knows that small bookstores have gotten smarter about the way they do business, focusing on titles that will move quickly and adapting to the changing tastes of the reading public.
But the problem is, she just can't imagine running that kind of bookstore. "We have always wanted to run a certain kind of store. If we couldn't--if we had to make compromises--we would sell it or close it down.
"I suppose in a way, maybe we are a relic of past times," Sanford muses in a more reflective moment.
"We've never had the maximization of profit as our primary objective or guiding principle. We've based stocking much more on the desire to have a complete collection in fields of interest. We try to keep things in stock, not to buy the books that will sell most quickly."
Perhaps it is the debate over the name of the store, however, which best summarizes both how much things have changed in the last 30 years, and how difficult it has been for the store to adapt.
When the store was founded, it was clear to all that the "our" in the title referred to the collective We that so typified the mentality of those who grew up in the 1960s.
These days, however, patrons often ask whether the "our" refers to women. Or gays. Or socialists. Or some particular special interest group in the constellation of groups to which people of passionate ideas generally belong in this new century.
"We've given serious thought to changing the name [of the store]," Sanford says. "But that would be admitting defeat. It would be giving in to the increasing fragmentation of society."
It would be giving in to the present. And then, one way or the other, there would no longer be a House of Our Own.