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Update, April 12: There’s a Change.org petition asking UPenn to help save the bookstore.
When Michael Row and Ashley Montague took over ownership of West Philly’s longstanding Penn Book Center, the husband-and-wife team considered it their dream job. Fourteen years later, they still do. But during their tenure running the store, which had been selling books since 1962, something changed.
“Amazon started to kill the coursebooks business,” Row told Billy Penn in a phone interview, noting that textbooks for university students had traditionally made up the bulk of the shop’s business.
On Monday, they sent an email notice to customers and fans announcing that the store would be closing for good at the end of May, after a 57-year run.
The couple decided it was not worth what they thought would likely be a fruitless search for a buyer, Row said, though they’d be thrilled if one emerged.
“When they opened the [Amazon@Penn] book depot [in 2016], that really knocked the wind out of us,” he told Billy Penn. “We looked at the numbers and saw we would be out of business within two years.”
But the couple didn’t give up. Instead of trying to compete with lower-than-list prices they couldn’t possibly match, they tried a pivot.
The textbook business had always been lower-margin than regular books (“trade books,” in industry parlance), plus those heavy classroom tomes took up lots of space. Montague especially was excited to clear them out and concentrate on being an excellent rendition of a normal bookstore, Row said.
Across the U.S., independent bookstores have found ways to thrive in recent years, embracing new roles as community gathering spots and places customers could go to unplug or receive personalized service. Membership in the American Booksellers Association is up 15 percent over the past six years, according to PlanPhilly.
Philadelphia has also seen a resurgence. Uncle Bobbie’s in Germantown, Shakespeare & Co. in Rittenhouse and A Novel Idea in South Philly are all recent newcomers to the indie bookselling scene.
So Row and Montague were hopeful. They revamped the front of the 3,000-square-foot space, located on 34th Street a half-block from Penn’s quad, and hired an events manager. Over the next couple years, they hosted dozens if not hundreds of well-attended events featuring renowned authors from the local area and around the globe.
“PBC served as a central gathering place where readers and writers and scholars could be together and encounter new ideas,” said Emma Eisenberg, a former staffer at the store and co-founder of the Blue Stoop literary collective.
In tandem, the husband-and-wife booksellers concentrated on making their 30,000-title collection unique. Their poetry selection became known as one of the best in the region. And sales went up, substantially — but not enough.
“It has been a lot of fun,” Row said. “But we just haven’t been able to do what we needed to do.”
After an “emotional rollercoaster” during which they considered various options, including trying to move the business to a new location, the duo decided they had no choice but to bring things to a close. They announced the decision to employees at the beginning of April, giving themselves about two months to wind down.
That lengthy runway was not an accident. If a buyer heard news of the closure and was interested in taking over, “we would die for it!” Row said.
The University of Pennsylvania owns the building, so lease negotiations would be through them, Row clarified. Penn has been a great landlord, he said.
Montague and Row both got their doctorates at Penn — she in English and he in business — and patronized the bookshop as students. In 2005, newly married with young children, they decided they didn’t want to go into research or teaching and went looking for a “family business” they could run together.
Penn Book Center “kind of fell in our laps,” Row said. Olga and Achilles Nickles, who took over from brother and founder Peter Nickles, were looking to retire to Maine. A longtime manager stayed on to oversee the transition. The first decade went great. Recently, not so much. The couple has not taken a salary in two years, per Row.
However, that doesn’t mean someone else wouldn’t find success. “If anybody thinks they could do it, they can approach us! It would be fantastic,” he said, calling himself “old” (he’s 62) and not good at “all the social media.”
“The Philly literary scene is hopping!” Row said, shouting out new collaborative Blue Stoop. “They do amazing stuff, with all this energy. If anyone can do it, it’s someone like that.”