West Philly’s Penn Book Center finds new owners, will not shut down

The couple taking over the beloved indie bookshop hope to keep it open “at least 100 years.”

New Penn Book Center owners Diana Bellonby and Matthew Duques

New Penn Book Center owners Diana Bellonby and Matthew Duques

Mark Nagel / Courtesy Matthew Duques
layla

Updated 3:10 p.m.

The epic Penn Book Center saga is on its way to a happy ending. The 57-year-old independent bookstore, which was set to close this fall, has found new owners.

After proprietors Michael Row and Ashley Montague announced they planned to shut down the longstanding West Philly spot because of financial woes, the couple was met with a flurry of unexpected support.

“It has been a whirlwind,” Row told Billy Penn on Monday. “When we first announced [the store closing] we said there was no way, no future, we couldn’t see any possible way to survive. And then BANG! All this stuff hit, support from the community poured out.”

An online petition to keep the store open garnered more than 5,000 signatures, and supporters showed up in real life, too. The University of Pennsylvania, which owns the Penn Book Center building, arranged a flexible leasing agreement. Book sales surged, and other forms of support streamed in. Then, something else happened.

“Out of the blue, Matt and Diana come up because they saw the press,” said Row.

Matthew Duques and Diana Bellonby, who are married, will officially become the new owners of Penn Book Center on Sept. 1. They officially signed the lease for the space on Monday.

“They are exactly what the store is about,” Row said. “Their vision for what indie should be, what Penn Book Center should be, it aligned so much with what we really thought.”

Duques and Bellonby moved to Philadelphia from Alabama in May, but neither of them is a stranger to the area.

Originally from New Jersey, Duques studied English at Haverford College before spending five years as a professor of English at the University of North Alabama. Bellonby’s father attended the University of Pennsylvania. The couple was already planning to move to Philly and open a bookstore when, well, “we actually saw [Billy Penn’s] story.”

Duques and Bellonby, who is also an academic as well as an author, were then faced with a big decision: Start a new bookstore, or acquire an existing one they knew already contributed greatly to University City and the city at large. “We went the latter route,” Duques said.

After the couple inquired, they discovered even more serendipity. Turns out Montague was Duques’ professor at Haverford College, something he didn’t realize until meeting her in person.

Some physical renovations, and maybe a new name

The new owners are already off to a running start, leveraging the momentum Penn Book Center collected in recent months

For the past three months, Duques and Bellonby have been engaged in recon, they said. They’ve talked to local writers, grad students from Penn and surrounding universities, and university faculty about what groups want to see from the space.

Though there’s lots that will be remaining the same, there will be some important changes coming to the bookstore.

Penn, which had been flexible in its lease terms during the shop’s recent crisis, has worked out “a really good lease” for the new owners, Duques said, the terms of which remain private. Minor renovations to encourage browsing and socializing in the bookstore are planned, including a space for classes on the second floor. The changes are intended to make the bookstore more of a community space, one that continues to be useful to its core audience — local writers, students and faculty — but is also more open and inviting to the general public.

“I think a good bookstore needs to have a clever and open design space,” Duques said, “that’s also inspiring in some way.”

Another *potential* pending change: the name.

Both sets of owners admit the Penn Book Center moniker has been tricky. People often mistake the indie shop for the official University of Pennsylvania bookstore, among other things. On the original “Save Penn Book Center” Change.org petition there was a survey asking folks to vote on new name options.

Possibilities included Muse City Books, 34 West Books and Free Verse Books. Some of the write-in suggestions were also clever, said Duques. Row laments the pending switch but understands the reasoning behind it. “I am interested in the prospect of rebranding,” Row said, “but I’m sad.”

The foursome will celebrate the store’s new beginning with a “meet the new owners” celebration with wine and cheese from 6 to 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 6.

It’s clear Duques and Bellonby are in the indie bookstore game for the long haul. Penn Book Center has already been open for more than half a century. So now, said Duques, “we’re shooting for at least 100 years.”

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