Throughout 2023, the Midtown Scholar Bookstore is celebrating 20 years as a bricks-and-mortar destination in Harrisburg, Pa. Over two decades, married owners Catherine Lawrence and Eric Papenfuse have grown what began as a 750-sq.-ft. walkup in Pennsylvania’s capital city to 15,000 sq. ft. of retail, ample warehouse spaces, and a 50-person staff. With a vast array of books on the store’s shelves and an e-commerce selection of new and used titles, the shop accommodates the reading needs of any Harrisburg scholar.

Lawrence and Papenfuse, former history teachers, started Midtown Scholar as a web store for used academic and general titles. They entered the bricks-and-mortar business in 2003, when, Lawrence explains, they bought “a languishing old building” in Midtown “that was half 19th-century townhouse and half 1950s post office—it even had a loading dock.” The upstairs became a shop “reminiscent of our favorite bookstores in Cambridge or Georgetown,” and the downstairs housed the online business.

Eager to bring literary programming and political debates into the store, Lawrence and Papenfuse took a chance on the down-and-out building next door, a spacious former theater and furniture store they’d had their eyes on. “In the midst of the real-estate crisis of 2006–2007 we had to go to bankers and say, ‘Hey, we’re opening a bookstore!’ ” Papenfuse remembers. “They were concerned, but it all worked out.”

They renovated the two-story space from floor to ceiling and “tunneled through the ground to connect the buildings and create a labyrinthine layout,” says Papenfuse. “It’s an experience.” Browsers now can visit the Counter Culture Coffee café, a children’s section, a rare book and collectibles annex, and a floor devoted to art books.

Papenfuse and Lawrence underscore the “scholar” in their brand by shelving contemporary and backlist titles alongside university press selections and literary assessments. On the first floor, Lawrence says, “we’ve been very intentional about having a diverse group of what we call ‘famous authors.’ We put new releases, classic works, and works of criticism there. We’re an urban-based store and a majority-minority city, and we have shelves upon shelves of Black history with great scholarly depth.”

A main-floor stage helps draw authors to Harrisburg as part of their book tours. The Susquehanna River city is an easy train ride from New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. “We want to be the literary destination in Pennsylvania,” says Midtown Scholar new-book buyer Alex Brubaker. “Last year we hosted Fredrik Backman and Erik Larson, and this year we’ve hosted Matthew Desmond,” whose Poverty, by America is earning accolades. Historians Keisha Blain, David Blight, and Eric Foner have given talks, and local authors Kate Baer and Lauren Castillo are regular guests.

We have grandparents coming with their grandkids, and we have millennials bringing their parents.

Brubaker also directs the annual Harrisburg Book Festival, which Lawrence and Papenfuse launched in 2009. Like most Midtown Scholar endeavors, it started small before becoming something much bigger, and in the case of the festival it evolved into a weeklong cavalcade of panels, signings, and children’s programming. “We have more than a dozen community partners and sponsors, and we’re anticipating about 10,000-plus attendees across the five-day festival this October,” Brubaker says. “It’s a culmination of everything we believe in, and it’s a really great party for books.”

Papenfuse says Harrisburg occupies “a wonderful crossroads on the East Coast. From the beginning, we wanted to be a catalyst for local development within Harrisburg and a draw regionally, because we saw a great craving in central Pennsylvania for a cultural hub.” He values the social and economic diversity of Midtown Scholar’s customers, and the bookstore’s intergenerational appeal. “We have grandparents coming with their grandkids, and we have millennials bringing their parents—where else do you see this happening in the culture at large?”

If Papenfuse’s pitch echoes a Chamber of Commerce brochure, he’s had practice: he served two terms as Harrisburg’s mayor, from 2014 to 2022. He calls the bookstore “a place for civic engagement and a catalyst for urban development.”

Lawrence agrees, adding, “It’s nice to be the corner bookstore and part of the redevelopment of retail shops and restaurants all up and down the street.” A cast-iron 1880s-era town-hall bell, hung prominently in the Midtown Scholar space, alludes to that philosophy: the bookstore as commons, enticing shoppers and entrepreneurs to the district.

Click here to register for the U.S. Book Show, and click here for more information on the programming.

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