Penn Book Center stays open: Indie bookstore won’t shut down as planned

Membership? Better marketing? The 57-year-old West Philly shop is exploring options.

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Facebook / Penn Book Center
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Days before it was scheduled to shut down after 57 years, Penn Book Center has good news for fans: The independent bookshop will stay open through the summer — and potentially beyond.

“We’ve figured out, by working with Penn and other parties, how to cover our holes for the summer,” co-owner Michael Row told Billy Penn.

“We’ve got a lot of options to look at,” he said. “It’s not really a guarantee that we can survive, but more time to think it through.”

Over the next few months, he’ll work with wife and co-owner Ashley Montague to chart a path forward, with the hope that the business can recover from Amazon’s death knell and become sustainable again.

Row and Montague originally set the end of May as the closing date for the shop they’ve owned since 2005. Their April announcement of the pending shutdown spurred wide outcry. Customers held rallies and showered the West Philly literary institution with supportive notes online.

The extra attention brought several positive side effects, Row said.

Landlord University of Pennsylvania is continuing to be flexible with rent, as requested by the more than 5,000 people who signed a Change.org petition to “Save Penn Book Center.” Other sources of temporary funding have also been lined up, per Row, who declined to go into details about individual donors.

Then there’s the fact that sales are up — a lot. The shop recorded a 50% jump in revenue over the past month and a half, Row said, and the storefront on 34th Street has welcomed many more people than in recent years.

“The feel of the store, there’s more people browsing, there’s an energy going now,” Row said. “The question is how can we keep this going?”

Announcing you’re closing can often bring a surge in sales, Row noted, likening it to a rug store “where they’re constantly going out of business.” But the seemingly sudden popularity led to an important realization: “One of our big problems was bad marketing, this has convinced us,” he said.

Across the country, literary shop owners have stopped trying to compete with Amazon on price — an impossible endeavor when the ecommerce giant sells books at way below cost — and have put effort into highlighting what sets them apart. These may include specialized selections, in-person author events and non-book items, things that highlight bookstores as cultural amenities rather than just places of commerce.

Philly has welcomed several new brick and mortar booksellers recently, including Uncle Bobbie’s in Germantown, A Novel Idea in East Passyunk, The Head & the Hand in Kensington and Shakespeare & Co. in Rittenhouse.

Small business experts from Wharton are helping Penn Book Center think through alternate business models, Row said. Just last week, they nailed down enough funding to get through the end of summer. After that, things are still uncertain — but there’s hope.

One possibility he and Montague are exploring is launching membership to supplement their bottom line. Instead of offering a rewards program, which is being shut down, Row envisions a system where frequent customers become paying members to unlock discounts or perks.

There’s an online survey to find out what people really want from the store, which was founded in 1962, and Row urged supporters to fill it out.

“People asked what they could do to help — fill out the survey,” he said. “And come in and buy books!”

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