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Blue Stoop: A new hang for literary Philly

There's no shortage of talented writers in Philadelphia. A new venture, Blue Stoop, aims to build a central hub for them to gather and build community.

John Brown of Phila (left) and Angela White of Philadelphia talk during the Blue Stoop happy hour at Win Win Coffee Bar in Philadelphia, Pa. on July 22, 2018.
John Brown of Phila (left) and Angela White of Philadelphia talk during the Blue Stoop happy hour at Win Win Coffee Bar in Philadelphia, Pa. on July 22, 2018.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Angela White has self-published six Christian romance novels. The mother of five also has a few plays tucked away, and has always considered herself a writer. But lately, the 51-year-old West Philadelphia native says she's been feeling blocked.

That's how she ended up at W/N W/N Coffee Bar at 10th and Spring Garden Streets on Sunday night, for a literary happy hour hosted by Blue Stoop, a recently launched community that cofounders Emma Eisenberg, 31, and Joshua Demaree, 30, plan to expand into a full-service brick-and-mortar home for writers and readers.

"I want to glean everyone's energy and go home and say, 'Oh, yeah, I can write 30 pages,'" White said of her ambitions for that evening.

There's no shortage of talented writers in Philadelphia. Bars and coffee shops host readings, and libraries, bookstores, and universities offer classes. But, unlike many other cities, Philadelphia has no central gathering place where people harboring literary ambitions can learn, network, share their work, or hear the work of others.

"We have a lot of initiatives and reading series, a lot of writers and readers," said Eisenberg, a fiction and nonfiction writer who lives in West Philadelphia. "But we don't have a way for those in [the literary community] to come together and centralize, nor do we have a space."

An initiative like Blue Stoop is vitally necessary, said poet Boston Gordon, 28, one of the more than 40 writers who attended the happy hour.

"What we need is a place, not just a traveling band of writers," Gordon said.

Gordon organizes a reading series that often meets at the Tattooed Mom bar at Sixth and South Streets. But using bars and restaurants as writerly haunts is "imperfect," said Eisenberg, because they may not be available on weekends, open to people under 21, accessible to those with disabilities, or comfortable for sober people.

Eisenberg and Demaree, who recently finished his master of fine arts degree at Rutgers-Camden, plan to buy or rent a building by this time next year that will be inclusive of everyone. That will be transformative, said Linda Gallant, editorial director at the Head and the Hand Press, a local nonprofit publisher that has advised Eisenberg and Demaree.

Gallant said literary events happen "every night of the week" in Philadelphia, but in diffuse pockets of the city.

"There's a lot of places where writers and artists gather, but they may not transcend genre or generation, or maybe even sometimes gender and race play into it," said Gallant.

Eisenberg and Demaree have heard this sentiment repeated through "wisdom-gathering" conversations with the people and organizations — literary magazines, libraries, bookstores, small publishers — that anchor Philadelphia's literary scene. They've also reached out to literary hubs in other cities, like Boston's famed Grubstreet.

"We're trying to move slowly, do things intentionally, and listening to people in the community, to make sure it's a community-led effort and not just something we're imposing," said Eisenberg.

For now, Blue Stoop will be based in the Art Church, at 52nd Street and Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia. They'll host three classes this fall in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, all aimed at "serious early-career writers," said Eisenberg. She said there is a gap in professional development opportunities for writers in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.

The classes are also designed to provide decent employment to writers in the city, for whom well-compensated gigs are sometimes hard to come by, and access to rigorous training for students who cannot afford a traditional M.F.A. program.

Blue Stoop will offer other programming, too, like manuscript consultations or short, intensive workshops. Longer term, the founders say they'd like to host a festival or conference.

This project could be an opportunity to strengthen the perception of Philadelphia as a literary city, said Nathaniel Popkin, a Philly-centric writer and founding coeditor of Hidden City Daily, which covers planning and design.

"People recognize implicitly that New York is a literary center," he said, whereas literature set in or written about Philadelphia is often dismissed as merely local.

"By beginning to create some momentum here, maybe those outside will begin to look inside and see what's here, and value it," he said.

But, Popkin added, Philadelphia has a unique local character that lends itself to an enterprise like Blue Stoop.

"Some people implicitly want to make something of where they live," he said. "And Philadelphia is naturally inclined to make something of where you live."

Blue Stoop is named for a poem by Thomas Devaney, a writer, editor, and Haverford College professor. The poem is based on a photograph by Philly-based Zoe Strauss, and it's about smallness, closeness, scrappiness — characteristics seen as present in Philadelphia's literary landscape.

"There's a sense of entrepreneurship" in Philadelphia, said Gallant. "That spirit of independence and willingness to try and take risks is a great quality of the scene here."

A centralized literary hub in Philadelphia can build solidarity in a profession that is often lonely, said John Brown, 24, an M.F.A. candidate at Rutgers-Camden who was at Sunday's happy hour.

"It's great to know other people are doing the same thing I'm doing, to have a support system, to not feel so solitary, to be able to step back from your own work and realize there are other people doing similar things," said Brown.

Popkin said this is why Philadelphia needs a centralized space where writers can raise one another up, and connect with an audience and with publishers, agents, or other opportunities.

Without community, he said, "being a writer, which is already impossible, is that much harder."