From the outside it looks like any of the other houses on Spruce Street. Wedged in between several fraternity houses, it’s easy to walk right by the shop without truly noticing it. Perhaps you’ve seen it in passing a million times, but never have taken the time to actually go inside. Next time you walk by, pop in. You’ll immediately regret all the times you didn't stop by before.
The first thing you’ll notice is the sheer quantity of books. From the ground to the top of the ceilings there are thousands of books organized into detailed sections. If you make it through the ground floor, you can venture upstairs to browse through even more titles. There are endless nooks to explore. It looks like what you imagine a traditional bookstore to look like, but wouldn’t expect in today’s reality.
It’s a far cry from the world of Barnes & Noble and Amazon's online bookstore. When you enter House of Our Own, you’re entering an experience. Instead of multitudes of employees and databases to guide you, all you have is your own imagination, and of course the guidance of owners Debbie Sanford (C ’71) and her husband Greg Schirm.
Almost as incredible as the space itself is the story behind it. Debbie beamed with pride as she explained the roots of the store, which opened in 1971. The Penn she knew as an undergraduate student during the Vietnam War was by no means a typical college experience. The campus was filled with constant protests, demonstrations, and debates on the war. Tensions ran high, and there were few places to escape the political climate.
That’s when the idea for the store arose. When it first opened, the store focused on history books, intending to give students context behind their current world. Over time, the selections expanded to include pretty much any genre you can think of. In many ways, the shop in 1971 was the same as it is now. The goal behind it has always been to be a place for people. The “Our” in the shop’s title refers to a collective group of people who need a space away from their hectic lives.
Debbie in part credits the comfortable feel of the atmosphere to its success, saying, “I think the space causes people to find themselves able to relax. When they come in, they’re able to scale down the pressure.”
Over the years, Debbie and Greg have seen many small businesses in the area disappear and be replaced by large corporations. In fact, after the Penn Bookstore was taken over by Barnes & Noble, the DP posted a satire article that House of Our Own was also sold to the chain for one million dollars. The couple laughs when recalling the countless phone calls they received scolding them for “selling out.”
Preserving a traditional store has been a struggle for the couple at times, but they have remained committed over the last 47 years because of their sheer love of what they do.
Debbie reflected on the store’s longevity, saying, “Years ago when Barnes & Noble took over the university bookstore, we never thought we’d survive. When Amazon started, we never thought we’d survive. But we just kept at it.”
When asked what has made them stick around when other businesses couldn’t, they say that they have remained focused on their original goal, and have avoided outside pressures to overextend themselves. Recently, they stopped selling course books because they felt it was too much of an added stressor. Their main focus has always been on stocking quality books—and not just best–sellers found at other bookstores.
Surprisingly, when the store opened, the range of titles available in mainstream retailers was very narrow. Debbie emphasizes that one of the unique attributes to her shop is the variety of subjects. She explains that even without knowing exactly what you want, you can find the perfect fit. The shop offers books on subjects from falconry to Iceland to gardening.
Perhaps even stronger than their love of the books they stock is the couple’s love of people. Some of the store’s customers have been coming in since the '70s. She has seen children grow into adults and students become professionals. Debbie, who says she has a strong memory for faces, relishes in reconnecting with old friends and meeting new people who come into the shop.
“For me, it’s all about making connections. People come in and walk around and they look at books and they think,” Debbie says. “There’s a certain interplay of imagination for that sort of thing. And that’s what we’re trying to preserve.”
Perched in front of the store is a sign that says “‘I’ve been walking by this place for years, but I’ve never gone in…’ How about today!” So the next time you’re overwhelmed with stress, or just need a quick escape, stop into House of Our Own and find yourself getting lost in a world you never knew existed.