For the booksellers and staff at Shakespeare & Co., parting is such sweet sorrow.
At least for now.
Although the Rittenhouse Square bookstore, cafe, and publisher has already shrunk its operating footprint and will close its doors sometime in the next month, this isn’t necessarily goodbye forever.
“Overall, it’s been a good experience, and we’re looking to remain,” said owner Dane Neller.
For now, though, the store — which already has closed its cafe and upstairs portion — will shut down completely, another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the bookseller’s website lists a last date of May 12, store manager Michael Fortney said he’s “not exactly sure” when closing day will be. It depends on how quickly inventory — all of which is marked down by 30% — sells.
If brisk business on Saturday was any sign, that day might come sooner rather than later.
Shakespeare & Co. opened its doors on the 1600 block of Walnut Street in 2018, the first Philadelphia outpost of a storied New York mini-chain that weathered the onslaught first of Barnes & Noble and then of Amazon in the 1990s and 2000s. By the 2010s, it had just one location left, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Neller, who bought that store in 2015, sought to expand its footprint. He reestablished a foothold on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — and opened its first branch outside of New York in Center City.
“It’s a great market,” Neller said of Philadelphia. “Very urbane, very educated, lots of readers.”
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In just four years, the elegant, wood-filled store has become a local favorite. The front-of-house cafe, a well-curated inventory of books, and a staff that one Yelp reviewer called “ridiculously capable” brought in a steady stream of customers.
Then came the pandemic. Quickly, Shakespeare & Co. scrapped plans for further expansion in New York. And while he wouldn’t share numbers, Neller said business got a lot worse in Philadelphia than in the remaining New York stores.
Rittenhouse Square relies heavily on offices and tourism from foot traffic — both of which, Neller said, had stayed low enough to keep business below pre-pandemic levels.
Then there’s the competition. Not only does Shakespeare & Co. contend with online behemoth Amazon, but also with old nemesis Barnes & Noble, which operates a store less than two blocks west on Walnut.
Even though the brick-and-mortar bookselling business has been booming as the pandemic has eased, those forces taken together have prevented a full recovery at the Philadelphia store. Its shuttering will mark the loss of a second independent bookstore in that part of the city this year. One block north, on the 1700 block of Sansom Street, Joseph Fox Bookshop closed for good on Jan. 29 after 70 years in business. Its second-generation owner-operators also said sales had not rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. Michael and Judi Fox also said they wanted more free time.
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Shakespeare & Co.’s lease on Walnut Street is up in mid-May, and while Neller wouldn’t discuss the terms, he was clear he wouldn’t renew it. He also would not say what his plans are for the five part-time employees there.
Neller said he hopes to stay in Philadelphia, though he’s not sure where. Shakespeare & Co.’s next location has to be close to readers, well clear of the competition, and with rent at the right price, Neller said.
“It saddens me this has to come to an end,” he said, “but hopefully we’ll open a new chapter.”