Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

A new neighborhood bookstore offers a glimmer of hope in bleak times | Helen Ubiñas

Everything that holds this world together is under attack. Information and education, facts and truth, compassion and community are just a few of the ways we can fight back.

Owner of booked. Debra Gress Jansen thanks friend Megan Traversari for a celebratory bottle of champagne on the store's grand opening.
Owner of booked. Debra Gress Jansen thanks friend Megan Traversari for a celebratory bottle of champagne on the store's grand opening.Read moreHelen Ubiñas

I should be working on at least two other columns, returning about a half-dozen emails and texts, and meeting all kinds of deadlines.

Instead, I am speed-walking to the grand opening of a neighborhood bookstore on Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill that, confession: I’ve been stalking for months.

I was hardly alone.

One day I tried to sneak a peek at the progress through the brown paper that maddeningly covered the windows when I spotted a note someone had taped to the door:

“Can’t wait until you open!!” it read.

The night before booked. — cute name, right? — officially opened its doors Thursday, I half-jokingly tweeted: “Would it be weird to take a personal day to celebrate the opening of a new bookstore near me?”

Exclusive nonexclusive: I love bookstores, especially independent ones. I love books. I love their smell and feel and promise, however small: an idea, a turn of phrase, a word, even, if the power of a well-chosen word should ever be described as small.

We’re lucky in Philadelphia. There are so many great neighborhood bookstores. Uncle Bobbie’s and Harriet’s and Big Blue Marble, just to name a few, and Hilltop Books, a used bookstore that opened in April by the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library and that is just a few minutes from booked.

During early COVID, I supported as many independent shops as I could. But I didn’t realize how much I missed the sense of community they offered until I walked up to the bookstore and found a small crowd milling outside in anticipation of the opening.

One woman held a bottle of champagne. A gift for the owner, a friend, Megan Traversari told me.

Sensing a kindred spirit, I brought up the palpable collective enthusiasm.

“Any woman-owned business, any independent bookstore is worth celebrating,” she said.

No doubt. But it’s also the timing.

With so many beloved neighborhood businesses forced to close because of the pandemic, having a new one pop up while we’re still in its grasp — especially one as fragile as an independent bookstore — feels almost miraculous. A glimmer of hope in continued bleak times.

“This was the silver lining of COVID,” said Debra Gress Jansen, the owner of booked. and a longtime drama teacher at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy before she left to pursue her dream to open a bookstore.

“This was that horrible lean-in moment where you’re like, ‘If not now, when?’ I hate to be cliché, but that’s how it was and I had always envisioned this to be a place where people would be happy to come and read and discuss and talk about books, because I love talking about books.”

Inside, masked customers eagerly took in the carefully considered layout filled with light. A father and son sat on comfy leather chairs, reading quietly side by side. Two women debated giving a once-favorite author one last chance. A little girl in the children’s nook offered a hearty endorsement: “It’s like a much nicer Barnes & Noble!”

As I walked out happily clutching my purchases: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris — I considered something else Traversari said.

“After the past two years, or maybe even longer, if we’re really thinking about what’s important and what matters and what makes us happy, I can’t really think of something more emblematic than a bookstore,” she said. “A brick-and-mortar little bookstore owned by a woman; it just really seems to be at the heart of what might save us.”

If that last part sounds hyperbolic to you, you haven’t been paying attention.

Everything that holds this world — us — together is under attack. How do we fight back?

With information and education, facts and truth, compassion and connection.

You know, all the things we can find in books.