Inside Shakespeare & Co. Philadelphia

In the middle of the glitzy kudzu spreading across Rittenhouse Row is a new core of warmth. Shakespeare & Co., an independent bookseller that developed a cult following over four decades in New York City, has softly opened its first store outside its home city, the first of three new locations planned.

Lined with walnut trim, the glass facade of the long-vacant former bank at 1632 Walnut St. now glows from within, where coffee and pastries front shelves offering 15,000 titles plus a special machine that can print millions more on demand.

Breathe deep once you’re inside and the heady ink-and-wood pulp aroma makes it tough to convince yourself the shop hasn’t been there for ages.

“It took a little longer to open than we anticipated,” said general manager Rick Rollins, a 44-year-old Barnes & Noble alum, commenting on the original target launch date of summer 2018.

Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Shakespeare & Co.’s expansion, first announced last March, is in line with a general shift in American culture toward relaxed, personal retail experiences.

That’s the gig at Shakespeare & Co. (which bears no relation to the Paris bookshop of the same name). I grew up a block away from the original Manhattan location, which became an Upper West Side icon after appearing prominently in When Harry Met Sally. To me the store wasn’t movie-famous — it was my favorite Sunday activity. Every other weekend I’d browse the stacks, emerging with six or seven books to take home. That outpost shut down in 1996.

In Philadelphia, about 2,800 square feet of retail space is split across the ground floor and a mezzanine. A cafe with tables and chairs is at the entranceway. Coffee comes via La Colombe, pastries and pretzels are brought in from Metropolitan Bakery, and pre-wrapped sandwiches from Le Bus round out the light menu.

Behind all that are the books. They’re sectioned off by genre, in tri-sided nooks tagged with helpful plaques: science fiction, humor, classics, thrillers, politics. The children’s section, tucked into the back left corner, has its own seating area and a few racks of non-book trinket items also good for educational fun.

The kids corner Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

How far each category spreads along the shelves is variable, Rollins explained. In the week or so his doors have been open, he’s already been surprised by what’s been selling best: “Poetry! Our customers have shown a great interest in poetry so far, so I’ve spiked our inventory.”

On-demand printing makes inventory a noncritical concern. With access to more than seven million titles, S&C’s patented “Espresso Book Machine” can spit out a tome in less than five minutes — one that sells for the exact same price as if it was already sitting on the shelf. You can also bring your own work to self-publish, or use the equipment to turn a collection of loose kids’ drawings into something bound for posterity.

A main goal for staff is to “learn all our customers’ names,” Rollins said. One way they’ll integrate into the neighborhood is via a robust event program.

Once the store is fully operational — probably near the end of October — expect at least a couple events hosted each week, said community outreach manager Suzy Johnson. Like what? Local author talks, book club sessions, poetry readings, writing workshops and whatever else people are interested in, she said.

A grand opening party is in the plans, after kinks have been worked out and the blue canvas awning and studded-bulb B-O-O-K-S sign have been installed.

Shakespeare & Co. Philadelphia is currently welcoming customers from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays (except major holidays).

View from the mezzanine level Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
Manager Rick Rollins at the bookstore’s cafe Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
The Espresso Book Maker can print a paperback in around five minutes Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
When a book is being printed, its title appears on this flipboard. As of Friday evening, 128 titles had been created at this location. Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
The cafe has a small menu of coffee, tea and snacks Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
Poetry has already proved popular Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...