Great universities need great bookstores. At the University of Pennsylvania, that means the Penn Book Center, which recently announced that it would close at the end of May, largely due to competition from discounted online book sales. Many of us at Penn are banding together to say, with a collective sigh: No! We need our local independent bookstore!
The Penn Book Center is a vital part of the Penn campus, but it has no official connection to Penn. And that is part of its value. PBC is a retail store that operates not for profit but in the service of literature and the intellectual life of our university. A not-for-profit business? Yes, that’s the beauty of independent bookstores, and why so many of us love and support them. Their profit is serving the community. It’s that radical. And that simple.
As a poet, I’ve always relied on the kindness of independent book stores. Poetry, the kind of poetry I most care about, is a money loser for publishers, bookstores, and — not to forget them — poets. To repeat something James Sherry once said, a piece of blank paper is worth about two cents; put a poem on it and its value drops to zero. That’s true of independent bookstores, too. Perhaps a fast-food store would turn a profit on the corner of 34th and Walnut. A slow-browsing establishment, like PBC, is running at a loss.
That’s because independent bookstores don’t primarily stock best sellers. They specialize in lower-turnover items, such as scholarly works in all fields, a substantial inventory of older works of literature and philosophy, and –– here’s the profit-killer –– contemporary poetry. The Penn Book Center is specifically dedicated to the work of Penn and Philadelphia authors. We even get to have our books in the window. For local literary artists, the Penn Book Center is as important as Penn’s wonderful art galleries, which have existed due to substantial subsidies. Indeed, PBC is something like a museum of contemporary culture where you can buy anything on display.
The Penn Book Center is a neighborhood center for literary culture. They have author and new-book events in the store almost every day. Indeed, PBC hosts more literary events than anyone else on campus except the astounding Kelly Writers House, which, of course, is a Penn organization.
Penn staff and faculty are meeting with PBC, and it may be possible for the store to stay in business through the summer. Ideas under discussion include PBC’s becoming a partial nonprofit with membership support, increasing bulk sales for classes, and getting support from departments for events.
But a short reprise, however welcome, is not a solution.
The loss of PBC would be as great for Penn as the loss of the statue of Ben Franklin in front of College Hall. You can say it’s symbolic, but such symbols matter for our intellectual commons. The university will survive the loss. But our intellectual commons will be diminished.
Charles Bernstein is Donald T. Regan Professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania.