"How you doin', sister?" Khalil Robinson calls to a young woman passing his stand in the lunchtime rush. "I got a new author here."
Behind Robinson, the self-described "Philly Book Man," sits his large display of street lit - books with glossy covers of scantily clad women, men in hoodies, shiny cars, and stacks of money, and titles suggesting tales of sordid excess.
On a smaller, lonelier display are a few books written by an Illinois senator who's running for president.
But on this recent weekday, Robinson is pushing a new offering, Stacking Paper, cowritten by first-time author Joseph Jones. Writing under the name Joe Joe, Jones is on hand to sign and sell his book about a drug dealer who considers retiring for love.
Robinson, 29, has been selling street lit on 15th Street, between Market Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, for three years, sometimes for 10 hours a day.
While the book business has been relatively stagnant, according to the Book Industry Study Group, a trade association, the gritty tales of street lit have grown into an independent movement whose authors write, publish and distribute their own books to stands, beauty salons, barber shops, clothing stores, record stores.
"Even food stores," says Jones.
Even to Amazon.com and, for some, even to the New York Times best-seller list.
"And it's still growing," says Robinson. "It's becoming a million-dollar business."
Robinson offers Philadelphia native Teri Woods as an example. Before signing with Warner Books for a reportedly lucrative multi-book deal, Woods sold more than one million books through her independent publishing company.
This week, her True to the Game III debuted at No. 14 on the Times list.
Jones, 32, a publisher trying his hand at writing, started out five years ago with one author, a childhood friend. Now, he says, his Street Knowledge Publishing has 25 authors and gets 10 manuscripts a week.
But as street lit thrives, so do criticism and controversy.
With its recurring themes of drugs, sex and violence, and titles like Whore and Still Hood, some say street lit glorifies the worst of urban culture.
Recently one of the genre's godfathers, Philadelphia native Omar Tyree, author of 16 books, announced his retirement from street lit, calling it "poison."
In an online post, Tyree, who now lives in Charlotte, N.C., blasted its saturation of "gold-digging, ghetto girl, gangster love, drug-dealer stories," and lamented its audience's preference for denigration over progression.
"You have a group of readers who only want to relate to the situation they're used to," says Tyree, "and that means you can't take them out of that condition. It's a sad situation. And it's ruining the entire industry."
Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill agrees.
"The increasing commodification of street lit, and the injection of the profit motive, endangers the genre," says Hill, a professor of urban culture and American studies. "In its current degraded state, we are seeing an art that . . . deprives its readership of a diverse range of experiences. So instead of literature with fundamental integrity, readers get more books about the projects, baby mamas and hustling."
"Yes, our young people are reading," says the Philadelphia-based literary publicist Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati, "but they're only reading things that glorify all the negative things about society, so their perspective of the world becomes really narrow. And because publishers see these books sell, they respond to it. But it's hurting us."
Author Jones, on the other hand, maintains, "Every book has a message in it. You just have to look for it."
For Robinson, the genre has been a lifeline.
Robinson was raised by his grandmother in battered Southwest Philly, after his mother was murdered by her boyfriend.
He dropped out of high school, sold drugs, and landed in prison, where he discovered street lit. He and the other inmates couldn't put the books down. The tales mirrored their lives.
After 21/2 years behind bars, Robinson returned home with a plan. "The same energy I put into selling drugs," he says, "I wanted to take ... and put it in a positive direction. I just wanted to change. I wanted to change for the better."
He started vending CDs at first, adding street lit at a time when titles were few.
"A lot of authors would come my way because they needed an outlet," he says. "And it just took off from there. It's all about creating. When you're a creative thinker, you create a market for yourself."
Robinson says the profit margin on street lit is "real low," and on a good day he'll sell more than 30 books for about $15 each. His list of books contains more than 750 titles, many of which he admits don't translate well to mainstream bookstores. One of his top sellers is Part Three of the Bitch series.
In addition to his weekly book signings, Robinson now offers a credit card machine for his customers' convenience. He recently launched a Web site. He also plans to open another Center City stand, on Chestnut Street.
Despite what critics say, he believes street lit can be a positive gateway.
"It might not be what people call the right type of information," he says, "but a lot of young people are starting to read."
Plus, "there's a lot of opportunity here," he says. "I just wish a lot of people knew, so they can get off these corners and sell these books."