The sixth most populous state (with more than 12.4 million people), Pennsylvania has two major bookselling hubs, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Nearly half of all 31 Pennsylvania Barnes & Nobles are located within a 25-mile radius of the two cities. Borders, with 69 stores, has 30 stores in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia areas.
Downtown Philadelphia was also home to the first Encore Books store, begun by David Schlessinger in 1973. By the time he sold the chain to Rite Aid in 1984, Encore had grown to 19 stores. A decade later Lauriat's purchased Encore and had 50 Encore stores at the time of its closing in 1999. Schlessinger went on to found Zany Brainy in 1991 and Five Below in 2002.
“Philadelphia is like the Manhattan of Pennsylvania,” said NAIBA executive director Eileen Dengler. “Then you have Pittsburgh on the other side of the state, and everything in between.” The in-between towns and rural communities are serviced primarily by chains and mass merchandisers, including 141 Wal-Marts and 33 Targets. “I grew up in Harrisburg, and if I wanted to go to a full-service independent bookstore I had to travel 40 miles roundtrip,” said bookstore tourism promoter Larry Portzline. After a recent move to Williamsport, home to 166-year-old Otto's Bookstore, Portzline now has a local independent. Not only does he buy most of his books at Otto's but he even proposed to his fiancée there.
While Otto's is one of the oldest stores in the country, the Moravian Book Shop, founded in 1745 in Bethlehem, is the oldest continuously operating bookstore in the world. “Like other independents, we have had to boost our income,” said general manager Dana DeVito, referring to sidelines like Moravian stars and box lunches to go. “But books are still the bulk of our business. We do very well with special orders and with Book Sense books.”
Given the Keystone State's literary tradition, which reaches back to its founding in 1682 by writer William Penn (No Cross, No Crown), it's not surprising that it should be home to two of the 10 oldest bookstores in the U.S. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and delegates drafted the Constitution in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania's largest city was also home to the first public school, in 1698, and the first public library in 1731. The first Carnegie Library in the U.S. opened in Braddock in 1889.
Although Pennsylvania may be better known for its steel mills, the first paper mill in North America was established near Germantown in 1690. The paper was put to use in nearby Philadelphia, where 11,000 books and pamphlets were printed between 1740 and 1776, including the first Bible in America and Thomas Paine's Common Sense.
Writers like Rachel Carson, James Michener and John Updike may hail from Pennsylvania, but so do those who made writing and reading easier. Ben Franklin invented bifocal glasses in 1748; Hyman Lipman the pencil with an attached eraser in 1858; and John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert the ENIAC (the first fully electronic digital computer), introduced in 1946.
Pennsylvania has a healthy mix of bookstores, including 25-year-old Chester County Book & Music Company in West Chester, the state's largest bookseller. In January, Chester County downsized to 37,000-sq.-ft. and reduced its 12,000-sq.-ft. music store by three-quarters. On the book side, it has cut back on how-tos. “Thirty percent of our business was how-to books,” said co-owner Kathy Simoneaux. “That was our bread and butter. We sold more in those categories than quote unquote bestsellers. Now it's half of that. The one bright spot is children's.”
At 19-year-old Whistlestop Bookshop in Carlisle, owner Jeff Wood tries to handpick everything he stocks, from the two-volume Loeb edition of The Aeneid to local honey, wax candles, framed art, and jazz and classical CDs. “The really important issue is putting the right book in the right hands,” said Wood, adding, “My wife and I have seen 10 different bookstores go out of business in a 30-mile radius.” Thanks to nearby Dickinson College, Wood is able to host big-name authors like Ian McEwan and is planning to open a second store for used books.
One of the challenges facing Mary Alice Gorman and Richard Goldman, owners of Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, just outside Pittsburgh, is getting authors for events. “Pittsburgh is nowhere near a top city for tours,” said Goldman. “It's forced us to be much more creative in the events we do.” That ranges from a signing in a lingerie store to an annual mystery festival with 50 writers. In addition, Gorman and Goldman reach out to the mystery community with a 16-page bimonthly newsletter, a gift catalogue and e-mail blasts. Mail order—a mix of Web and phone orders plus an occasional fax—accounts for one-third of store sales. “Many stores say their biggest expense is rent,” said Goldman. “Ours is shipping.”
Robin's Bookstore, Philadelphia's oldest independent, founded by Larry Robin's grandfather in 1936, is in the midst of consolidating and just closed its annex store. “The big change in bookselling,” said Robin, “is the death of nonfiction. Anybody who knows what they want, buys it online. What we've been doing is shrinking our nonfiction. We don't have a business section or a computer section anymore.” He's encouraged by strong sales of literature, poetry and kids and by a nascent shop-local movement that has brought independent corner groceries to the downtown.
Michael Fox, whose parents began Joseph Fox Bookshop in Philadelphia in 1951, also has many of the same advantages as Robin's. “We own the building, which is why we're still here,” said Fox. Although publishers have cut back on author tours to Philadelphia, his store is able to hold events for writers like Salman Rushdie and John Updike through a collaboration with the lecture series of the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Ed Hermance, owner of 34-year-old Giovanni's Room in Philadelphia, which specializes in GLBT titles, credits homophobic landlords who would not rent to him with keeping the store afloat. “We were forced to buy our building,” he said. “If we didn't own it, we couldn't possibly afford the rents.” Initially, Hermance borrowed the money from his customers, and he continued to rely on five volunteer staffers. During the '80s, Giovanni's Room had a thriving wholesale operation, which has since tapered off. Now Hermance is looking to boost business through sales at Giovannisroom.com, which he updates weekly with new arrivals.
Despite a challenging market, many stores are finding innovative ways to grow their business, and Pennsylvania continues to attract new stores, including Joseph-Beth, which added a branch in Pittsburgh in November 2004. The Keystone State also has a strong network of used booksellers and stores that carry both new and used, like Robin's and 36-year-old House of Our Own in West Philly. Although several bookstores have been in the same family for more than one generation, perhaps the most unusual intergenerational twist is in Philadelphia, where Molly Russakoff and her brother, Joe Russakoff, both opened used-book stores—Molly's Bookstore and Mostly Books—not far from their parents' store, Russakoff's Books & Records.