Last month, Philly had its very first annual Bookstore Crawl, where participating bookstores from across the city were able to cultivate a day dedicated to book–sharing, book–loving, and bookstore crawling.
The inaugural event included all kinds of fun and exciting events—ranging from giveaways, book deals, author signings—across 20 various independent bookstores in the city. It proves once again that Philadelphia is no stranger to the independent bookstore scene—or rather, independent bookstores are no strangers to Philadelphia. They have played a pivotal role in shaping, cultivating, and reimagining the space for reading and attaining books.
Independent bookstores in Philly have always been more than just places to attain books. They’re also hubs of community power and resilience. And it is this culture of community that pushed forth the Philly Book Crawl: a celebration and love letter for all our favorite local bookstores.
In an interview with Eric Smith, the founder and lead organizer of the Philly Bookstore Crawl, he explains that the idea of a bookstore crawl was inspired by ones he attended when living in Richmond and Ann Arbor, Mich. When he and his wife moved back to Philly, he knew it was Philly’s time for its own day–long bookstore bonanza.
Smith shares that the layout of the event was entirely up to the community members, making it flexible and personalized to Philly folks. He explains that the bookstore crawl hopefully encourages people to “check out a new place or go to a new section of the town.” He hopes that people accept this invitation to spend a day learning more about the city’s bookstores and their neighborhoods. The goal of the bookstore crawl is to supplement the community that Philly independent bookstores have fostered. Smith expresses how it's important to remind people that these indie bookstores are there: They “offer up something that [Amazon] can’t—and that's a community.”
This concept of “community” is reflected also by Jon Bekken from Bindlestiff Books at 45th St. and Baltimore Ave. This long beloved West Philly favorite is now reaching its 18th year of business in December; with this note, Bekken shares how throughout all the years, Bindlestiff’s “sense of community and the community [they] serve, constitute each other.” In other words, they are not mutually exclusive, but continue to define each other in a harmonious relationship.
West Philly residents themselves influence Bindlestiff's book selection. “There's no space for ‘junk’ in the store, [so] we have to have things that seem to us to speak to the community,” Bekken says. This collaboration extends beyond book genres in stock through their support in working with various community partners. The A Book A Day program supplies books for the local elementary schools. Bekken further explains how Bindlestiff has provided books for incarcerated people and dental clinics, among others. There seems to be no limit to how Bindlestiff has actively and meaningfully responded to their community. And just as Bindlestiff has been there for the Philadelphia community, the community gives back.
This is most notably represented by the fact that Bindlestiff is an all–volunteer store which Bekken had found to mean that the “people who work at the store are passionate about it and bring some real commitment and expertise.” This operation format also obviously reduces the cost structures of maintaining the bookstore.
There is no doubt that there are definite realities and struggles of maintaining and sustaining an independent bookstore, especially in the context of the hegemonizing forces of major corporations. One such force—Amazon—has played a critical role in wiping out many local indie bookstores due to its predatory pricing practices, which has influenced how book–buyers choose where to attain books.
But for some bookstores, their perseverance is one met with no progress. After 76 years running, an iconic, locally loved, family–owned Robin’s Bookstore closed its doors in 2007. This was met with another (very) local independent bookstore shutting down: the Penn Book Center in May 2019 after 58 years of operation. And most recently, the closing of the 70–year–old book business, Joseph Fox Bookshop, at the end of January 2022. These disappearances are real and their impact is more real to the communities that they have served for decades.
Indie bookshops “serve the people who want to hold those books and look at them,” Bekken says. The concerns of the threats of disappearance for small, independent bookstores are also influenced by institutions like Penn. Bekken says that House of Our Own Books has a symbiotic relationship with Penn, where “as long as they are still there, Penn will allow them to stay.” But if the folks at House of Our Own were to retire, he doubts Penn would otherwise support an independent bookstore. Bekken openly remarks, “[Would] Penn decide that [House of Our Own] is a very valuable piece of property that could become either a frat house or combined with other properties to make another high rise?”
Therefore, this Philly Bookstore Crawl and the existence and resistance of local Philly indie bookshops are beacons of hope and change. Appreciating our Philly booksellers and bookstores is a deliberate act to support our local community.
Smith and Bekken share a common goal: spreading hope. Hope in Philadelphia, hope to continue, and hope to preserve. And, most importantly, the hope to resist—collectively as a community.
Because, essentially, we all deserve a bookstore to call our community. We all deserve a chance to grow a love for reading and share that love with others. Books break barriers. Independent bookstores break barriers. They allow people to meet new people, forge new relationships, learn and unlearn, and contribute knowledge and empathy. Independent bookstores reflect the community: When the bookstore dies, a part of the community dies too.
“If we don't celebrate [the indie bookstores] as often as we can, they won't be here. Hopefully [the bookstore crawl is] my way of giving back to the bookshops that have done so much for me in my career and my author life,” Smith says.