The death notice appears in the front window of Robin's Bookstore in Center City, sandwiched between

Chopin - A Life


Our Dumb World


Par for the course in the provocative world of proprietor Larry Robin.

His display philosophy has always been to mix the obscure with the best-seller, pairing "things you're going to look at because you're interested and things I think you should know about."

In this case, the death notice is the thing he wants you to know about. Robin's, started by his grandfather in 1936 and believed to be Philadelphia's oldest independent book seller, is calling it quits at the end of January.

He can take the stomach-churning world of declining sales outpacing rising expenses, the unlevel playing field of single owner versus national chain, the predictions of further economic deterioration with no immediate end in sight no more.

Sales dipping as much as 15 percent in recent months, his salary not even $30,000, Robin said his beloved business had gone "from bad bearable to bad unbearable."

"I can't hold on," said the 66-year-old father of four who lives above the store on a lively stretch of 13th Street, just off Sansom.

So, all new books and calendars in stock are on sale - 20 percent off now, with the discount headed to 50 percent by Jan. 5, where it will stay until the lights go out at Robin's on Jan. 31.

The price breaks came as no consolation to customers who stopped by yesterday afternoon only to learn that will not be an option much longer.

"We happened to be walking by and saw the (closing) sign, and we're shocked," said Brendan Yuhas, 41, a fifth-grade science and math teacher who took a seat on a bench outside Robin's after buying a half-dozen educational books for his 6-year-old son.

He was visibly shaken.

The purchase just might be the last the South Philadelphia resident makes, bringing to an unwelcome end a 10-year relationship that Yuhas contends is impossible to have with a bookstore chain. He struggled to make sense of it.

"Even in this economy you would think an established business has the staying power," Yuhas said.

With its narrow aisles, heavily worn mauve carpet and floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with books and magazines tended by a laid-back staff that has been whittled to five over the last year from a high of 15 in the 1970s, Robin's has been a draw to Center City resident Joshua Shaffer, 34, for a year and a half.

"It's a very homey environment," he said. "And it's part of our town."

Shaffer, an artist and caterer, said he also felt loyal to Robin because Robin, an ardent promoter of unknown authors, was the first to carry the first book written by one of Shaffer's friends.

Of the store's closing, Shaffer said: "That sucks."

He wondered whether Robin's would have had more luck had it gone the way of Barnes & Noble and installed a coffee bar.

Asked about that in an interview in his second-floor office, tucked just behind the used-books section, Robin said he had done that for a few years when his part of town did not have the six coffee shops it has now. When they finally started coming in the 1990s, Robin, who has worked in the family business for 60 years, gladly put away his brewing machines.

"I love books," he said. "I don't love food service."

But he does need to eat.

So Robin, who has a strong resemblance to musician David Crosby, is already working on his next act.

On the second floor of 108 S. 13th St., where Robin still plans to offer some used books for sale, a "café" is taking shape where, on a stage yet to be built, readings and other performances "with intellectual content" will be offered for a fee to the public.

"It's build your own cultural institution," Robin said as contractors took down shelves yesterday.

The first floor of what has been the main floor of Robin's Bookstore will be rented out, Robin said, without bitterness.

"I'm lucky," he said, "because I've done what I love most of my life."

He's still working on the guilt he feels about closing.

"There's always that question, 'Could you have made it? Could you have done something different that would have been successful against the odds?' "