Penn Book Center has a new name: People’s Books & Culture

The 57-year-old bookshop in West Philadelphia is thriving under new ownership.

Dr. Amber Abbas and Dr. Shandana Khan speak at a PBC event in mid-November

Dr. Amber Abbas and Dr. Shandana Khan speak at a PBC event in mid-November

Instagram / @pennaisiancenter

Saved by a protest, a petition and two eager newcomers this past summer, Penn Book Center has officially been rebranded. The new name: People’s Books & Culture.

That’s just one of several changes the 57-year-old independent bookshop is undergoing after being sold to new owners this summer.

Matthew Duques, who now owns PBC with his wife Diana Bellonby and acquired the store from the previous owners Michael Row and wife Ashley Montague, said they chose the name from a crowdsourced poll.

“We had all kinds of interesting answers,” Duques told Billy Penn. Some of the potential name options were Muse City Books, 34 West Books and Free Verse Books. But keeping the PBC initials was central to the store’s branding and community name recognition.

Someone proposed People’s Book Center. Duques and Bellonby liked it, with one little tweak.

“We tend to think that when the people come together and talk about books, share their ideas about books and share the stuff that they’ve written with each other,” Duques said, “it inevitably creates some kind of culture.”

Along with the name change, the indie bookshop is getting a facelift. The long-standing carpet is out, to be replaced most likely by wood-look tile flooring and scattered area rugs. The upstairs bookshelves will be rearranged to create classroom and reading club space. PBC will fulfil online orders and deliveries, but close the physical space during the estimated three-week renovation in January.

Enhanced in-store programming is already underway.

Take the mid-November event PBC hosted, a conversation between queer Latinx authors Jaquira Díaz and locally-based Carmen Machado. That sold out program packed the building’s meeting space and was the first event the store ever livestreamed on Instagram.

Strengthening PBC’s reach within and outside of the Penn community while separating the store’s identity from Penn’s official bookstore is among Duques’ and Bellonby’s top priorities.

“I think the event I did with Jaquira Diaz was a great sign of things to come,” Machado said. “It reflected the level of excitement and enthusiasm that folks in West Philly (and Philadelphia in general) have for literary and cultural programming.”

Keeping the PBC acronym also means something to the bookstore’s existing base, said Chi-ming Yang, an English prof at Penn. Yang organized a spring protest to help galvanize support for the financially flailing literary hub.

“They came up with a really creative solution in People’s Books and Culture where it’s still PBC,” Yang said. She added the store’s new name is, “opening itself up to more than Penn with calling it People’s,” and, “paying homage to all the people who came out to save that store.”

And that was a lot of people.

More than 5,000 supporters signed a petition to keep the store open before Duques and Bellonby acquired it.

Supporters are showing out with their dollars this holiday season, too. After a day of “terrific” sales, Duques projected gift shopping will bolster PBC revenue in the next two weeks before Penn lets out for winter break.

PBC plans to launch more programming in the spring and kick off a year-long children’s book series beginning in late winter, Duques said.

“They have been so inviting of feedback from the community all along the way since they took over,” Yang, who had just visited the shop on Tuesday, said. “[Matthew] was really interested in people’s ideas with how to make the store more accessible, especially to the student community.”

Of the importance PBC maintains in the local literary community, Yang said indie bookstores yield the person-to-person connection consumers crave.

“They’re never going to be a Barnes and Noble or Amazon but I think they raise the question of ‘convenience at what cost?'” Yang said. “I think the cost often is alienation.

“And to me the idea of community, and also anti-corporate community, is what I value about the bookstore.”

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