Book lovers, rejoice.
The Penn Book Center, one of Philly’s oldest independently owned bookstores, will remain open after it was purchased by Matthew Duques and Diana Bellonby. The sale is to be finalized this weekend.
The bookstore was expected to close in May because of losses from online sales of books elsewhere at much lower prices, according to then-owners Michael Row and Ashley Montague.
But after news of the planned closure broke, the city’s literary community rallied around the store — located in University City at the intersection of 34th and Sansom Streets — to keep it afloat through the summer. Row and Montague spoke with a slew of students, professors and university officials about how to keep the Penn Book Center’s doors open.
In May, Duques, a Haverford graduate, and Bellonby moved to Philly from Florence, Ala., where Duques taught English at the University of North Alabama, to be closer to family. When the couple were packing up their house, Bellonby stumbled across an article about the bookstore closing online.
“Matt has been talking about opening an independent bookstore for 12 years, which is basically as long as I’ve known him,” said Bellonby. “When I read about this store, I was immediately, like, ‘This is an independent bookstore in Philly that is intimately connected to an academic community.’ I woke him up at night to tell him about it, and that’s a big deal because he’s an insomniac.”
By the next morning, Duques had reached out to Row, who sent him a nondisclosure agreement and information on the bookstore.
“I initially didn’t think much of it,” said Row. “But then we started to have conversations, and turns out that these guys were just perfect. It was like a ‘sent by the universe’ kind of thing.”
Duques and Bellonby are hoping to turn the Penn Book Center around by creating a more active social media presence and implementing a new rewards program. They also want to make the website more user-friendly; expand the communal space upstairs for writing workshops and book club meetings; and perhaps even change the name of the store.
“We want to help the store retain its identity while having a less confusing name,” Bellonby said. “Penn Book Center makes people think it’s the university bookstore, and that’s a problem that inhibits business.”
As an academic, Duques said he’s excited to continue supporting the vibrant academia community in the area.
“The connections that the bookstore has made over the years with faculty, students, grad students, not just at Penn but at surrounding universities are just amazing,” he said. “Ashley and Michael were getting calls daily from people who wanted to help the store because it helped them professionally and culturally.”
Bellonby singled out Chi-ming Yang, an associate professor in English at Penn, as someone who played a huge part in helping save the bookstore. She said that without the protests that Yang organized on campus, she would have never learned about the store’s troubles. (Yang also started a petition to save Penn Book Center that collected more than 5,000 signatures.)
“I am thrilled that last spring’s efforts to save Penn Book Center have helped with the survival of the store,” Yang wrote in an email. “I hope that we can keep building community and generate new momentum — among students and young people, especially — to divest from Amazon and give business to local, brick-and-mortar indie stores like PBC.”
The larger literary community is thrilled, as well, according to Emma Eisenberg, the director of Blue Stoop, a nonprofit hub for writers.
“Penn Book Center’s closing would have been a huge blow not just to Philly’s local bookstore scene but to the fabric of our whole city,” Eisenberg wrote in an email. “The space has been a hub for creative people and ideas in Philly for decades and has provided sorely needed space and opportunities for so many writers and thinkers, me included.”
Founded in 1962 by Achilles, Olga and Peter Nickles, the bookstore was beloved for its selection, which included hard-to-find titles used by students. In 2005, Row and Montague purchased the store.
Under their guidance, Penn Book Center decreased the selection of textbooks it sold, increased literary events, changed its interior, and extended hours. In the end, the changes didn’t generate enough sales for the bookstore to stay open, according to Row.
“The end for us is sad,” he said. “But the fact that it can live just makes us happy. The idea that America can’t support a store like ours was really depressing, so the mobilization of the community definitely gives hope. Whether that energy can be harnessed and sustained, that’s kind of the question.”
As for what’s next?
“We’re spending some time here to help with the transition,” Row said with a laugh. “But otherwise, we don’t have a clue.”