After 70 years in business, the second-generation owner-operators of Joseph Fox Bookshop say they’re closing their doors Jan. 29. With business not returning to pre-pandemic levels and the time commitment required to run the store, Michael Fox and his wife, Judi, are ready to enjoy some leisure time.
“I’m old enough that I felt it was time to retire,” said Michael Fox, 69. “I feel sad for my customers, I do. I feel sad for the city, that they’re losing a good bookstore.”
Located at 1724 Sansom St., Joseph Fox has stood apart from big-box stores thanks to the carefully curated shelves — featuring the best in art, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction titles — and knowledgeable staff who could help you find the perfect read for a history buff or atmospheric winter novel for yourself.
“We don’t have self-help books, we don’t have books on computers, and we don’t have much popular fiction,” said Fox, who took over the store in 1998 after his father died. (Don’t worry, they do have the latest Sally Rooney stocked.)
Named after its founder, the bookstore launched in 1951. Fox described his father as having a near obsession for literature despite never graduating from high school.
He said he doesn’t know much about what his father did before opening the bookstore save for a deployment in Guam during World War II — coincidentally building a library there.
Joseph Fox would marry Madeline in 1940, opening the shop more than a decade later, which would become a family affair. Madeline would dedicate herself to creating a robust children’s section, which today takes the form of a nook decorated with simple cardboard cutouts, including Peppa Pig and Eloise.
The couple would create a cultural institution together, according to their son. A basement, which could have made for a desolate space, was turned into a vibrant oasis for book lovers on the search for something off the beaten path.
Like an art dealer, Joseph was obsessive in his pursuit to stock the best and latest books on architecture, art, and design, and people took notice.
Regular customers would include figures like the Philly-based architect Louis Kahn, who would “hold court” in between browsing.
The business would continue to be a family affair as Madeline gave birth to two sons. One of Fox’s first memories is unpacking books.
Fox started working in the shop in his 20s and he didn’t necessarily intend to stay, though that’s what eventually happened. While he didn’t have as intense a passion for literature as his father did, he certainly loved to read — his favorite subjects including history and political philosophy — and knew what was good.
Fox’s father purchased the building in 1986, a move that helped the small business survive internet competition and rising rents in the neighborhood.
Fox took over the shop in 1990. He’d move the business to the first floor and hosted book signings and events across the city to drum up business. Eager patrons lined the block early in the morning for a 2008 David Sedaris books signing.
Today the store touts a minimalist clean feel where the books do the talking. One spinner rack for the classics, another for staff picks, beautifully embossed journals by the register, at the back of the store, children’s classics like Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and the quirky Moomin books by the Finnish author Tove Jansson — Judi Fox at the heart of the store’s curation.
“The worst complaint we ever had was ‘We can’t leave without buying something else,’” recalled Michael.
Rumors of a potential closure spread among devoted customers at the start of the new year.
Online ordering was discontinued and patrons were encouraged to use the store’s gift certificates by Jan. 29.
The bookstore, said Fox, did a significant amount of business with corporate clients that would request bulk book orders for retreats or other events. When the pandemic hit, these corporate events went away and so did the orders. And foot traffic on Sansom Street has yet to bounce back.
“Center City hasn’t recovered. There’s nobody even working,” he said. “It’s just dead.”
While Michael and Judi, 61, don’t quite have retirement completely figured out, Michael said he has some ideas.
“I’m going to read history and philosophy, work out, walk my dog – the pride of Rittenhouse Square,” he said.
As for the rest, it’s an open book.