A Walking Tour of Philadelphia Book Stores

Catherine Kerrison, December 2005

Benjamin Franklin's printing business did so well in Philadelphia that he could afford to retire at age 42. It was here that he founded the Library Company of Philadelphia to nurture a passion for reading. Philadelphia still loves books, as you'll readily see if you explore the offerings of the trade beyond the Exhibit Hall. Whether you're looking for new yet discounted or gently used and deeply discounted books, or treasures liberated from a musty attic, you can find them in Philadelphia—all within walking distance of the meeting hotels.

You can indulge your passion for used books, and support the Philadelphia public library and its literacy programs, at the Book Corner, run by the Friends of the Free Library. Completely dependent on donations, the store boasts an interesting and well rounded selection, ranging from children's books and old movies to literature, history, and science. (I found an out-of-print document collection of colonial American women's religious writings for $7) Staffed by volunteers, the shop sells its books for one-quarter to one-third of the cover price. If you find what you're looking for, you'll likely get the best price in town here. (311 N 20th St., 215-567-0527, one block north of the Benjamin Franklin Pkwy.).

From there, visit Robin's Bookstore where you can buy current magazines at a 40 percent discount, select new books for 50 percent off, and fiction for 99 cents (hardcover and paperback). Robin's carries new and used books of general interest: fiction, literature, African American literature, local and travel, art, photography, music and film, and mystery. (History is not particularly well represented here, however.) This is not an antiquarian book store, but you may find an occasional first edition (they had Native Son, for example). They buy from private libraries and distributors, so they control their stock. Located on Chestnut Street across from Freeman's Auction House, they also specialize in auction catalogues (1837 Chestnut St., 215-567-2615). Or visit the original Robin's (est. 1930) at 13th and Sansom Street to find a concentration of contemporary African American literature and political literature with a decided left-of-center bent.

For the sheer pleasure of the warm welcome, sunny brightness, and the thrill of new books, don't miss Joseph Fox Bookshop, several-time winner of the "Best of Philly" award. "Sensitively stocked," as Access Philadelphia noted, Joseph Fox specializes in architecture, history, literature, serious non-fiction, music, and poetry. Its Philadelphia guide collection is also superb, offering interesting and off-the-beaten-track tours, such as The Jewish Community under the Frankford El. The children's section, with the skylight overhead, is irresistible. Since the shop sponsors 200 book events per year, you can also find many author-signed editions here (1724 Sansom, 215-563-4184).

If you prefer sorting through attic treasures, continue on to Hibberd's Books, which buys and sells used and rare books. Its dark interior, rich smell of old books, and tables piled high with books, old prints, and postcards all invite leisurely browsing. Its stock changes frequently, but tends to focus on art, architecture, old histories, and multi-volume great literature collections (1306 Walnut St., 215-546-8811).

The eclectic South Street area is home to Wooden Shoes Books, whose sign, "all volunteer anarchist collective," heralds its offerings. Howard Zinn's The People Speak and Ray Raphael's A Revolutionary People are prominently displayed in the front window, along with Emma Goldman's Living My Life and Dick Geary's Labor and Socialist Movements in Europe before 1914. They sell both new and used books; you can pick up new books (left over from their events) for $4 (508 5th St., one block north of South St., 215-413-0999).

Turning back north, make your way up 2nd Street toward Christ Church (or take the subway to 2nd and Market Streets). There you'll find two used book stores, The Book Trader (7 N 2nd St., 215-925-0511) and Big Jar Books (55 N 2nd St., 215-574-1650). With their more current fare, both stores cater to general readers, rather than antiquarians. Book Trader buys "any good book in any field"; its large collection fills the two-story store's bookshelves and the overflow is piled up on the floor. The 40–60 percent discount makes the hunt worthwhile. Big Jar Books buys selectively from estate sales and sells mostly paperback fiction, but you can also find interesting drama, music, and poetry sections. Tidy, well organized, and easy to browse, Big Jar Books also provides a welcome area to sit with tea, coffee, and baked goods to savor your purchases. Walk back to the meeting hotels along Market Street and pay your respects to Franklin at the site of his home at Franklin Court (between 3rd and 4th Sts.).

For those willing to venture on public transit, the #48 bus (from Arch St.) will take you to Bookhaven, which specializes in literature and history "for readers and scholars." You could spend an entire afternoon here, combing through two floors stacked with a collection of "impressive depth." This is probably Philadelphia's best used book store, and well worth the trip. Be sure to bring cash, however; they don't accept credit cards (2200 Fairmount Ave., 215-235-3226). To browse in a used and rare book shop in the beautiful Chestnut Hill area, visit Gilmore's Book Shop. It stocks about 3,000 titles, with strengths in Philadelphia history, Americana, decorative arts, and photography. It has limited hours, however, usually Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m–4 p.m. or by appointment; call first to make sure the store is open (43 E Chestnut Hill Ave., 215-248-1763, one block from the SEPTA R7 and R8 lines).

Philadelphia has all the larger chains as well. In the midst of your bookstore walking tour, you can also stop in at Barnes & Noble at 1805 Walnut (near Robin's), Borders at 1 S. Broad Street, in Rittenhouse Square Park, or Borders Express and Waldenbooks in the Gallery at 9th and Market.

—Catherine Kerrison (Villanova Univ.) is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.