Former Penn Book Center closes for good, coronavirus ends 60-year run in West Philly

The shop nearly shut down last year, before new owners stepped in.

pennbookcenter-bookshelves
Instagram / @peoplesbooksculture
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The former Penn Book Center seems to have reached the final chapter in its fateful epic. Most recently known as People’s Books and Culture, the University City bookstore is closing for good…again.

Current proprietors Matt Duquès and Diana Bellonby announced via email last week that the shop would not reopen.

The couple said they’ll divert resources from the store into their board-run nonprofit to “support the movement for Black liberation” through grants to orgs like Black Lives Matter and Harriet’s Bookshop.

PBC, as it’s affectionately known, has been a staple in West Philly’s academic community for nearly six decades. Duquès and Bellonby acquired the store from its previous owners last summer, after a series of protests, petitions and plot twists kept it from collapse.

Former owners Michael Row and Ashley Montague originally announced plans to sell or shut down the shop in May 2019. Row at the time cited Amazon’s disruption of their business model.

The shop was able to stay open after more than 5k people signed a Change.org petition calling on landlord UPenn to be more flexible with rent, customers held rallies and bought a lot more books.

Duquès and Bellonby emerged in the summer of 2019, after learning of the situation in a Billy Penn article, they said, and swooped in to buy the beleaguered store. They changed the name, promised a renovated physical space, a more cafe-style vibe, and an improved social media presence.

Over their 8 months of ownership, they hosted sold-out diverse programming and live streamed events on Instagram. In the end, it wasn’t enough — and the coronavirus didn’t help.

“During the pandemic we weighed our options, talked to other people that we met in the area, and tried to find some compromises in the way of rethinking the store going forward,” Duquès told Billy Penn. “At the end of the day, we couldn’t find a good partnership model.”

In the newsletter note announcing the closure, the couple wrote the business faced other challenges, too.

The shop’s outdated business systems were another obstacle, because someone has to be inside the building to make sales, Duquès said. At the onset of the pandemic, he hand delivered previously-placed orders.

Then there were needed physical improvements, on which Duquès said they lost money, though not as much as if renovations had started in earnest. Additionally, he said, PBC’s location between Barnes & Noble and UPenn’s bookstore wasn’t ideal — although it’s been nestled between them for decades.

The couple also cited superfluous inventory as a problematic issue. In an interview with Billy Penn, former owner Row praised the shop’s one-of-a-kind literary offerings.

Customer Darin Harbaugh agreed with Row, saying, “Anyone who ever shopped at Penn Book Center had the experience of continually being amazed at what was already in inventory. PBC would have the book you wanted with several new incredible finds alongside.”

Harbaugh and a group of former employees, all of whom refused to go on the record, told Billy Penn they were unhappy with the way PBC was characterized in the newsletter announcement.

They also suggested Duquès and Bellonby have plans to open another shop.

“We have no definite plans at this time to open another bookstore,” Duquès told Billy Penn. If the couple does open another shop, he added, it’ll be a lot smaller and “in a much cheaper location.”

Former owner Row said he learned of the shutdown when he walked by and saw people packing up boxes. He’d also learned one of the store’s founders, Achilles Nickles, died in April.

“So, we’re sad,” Row said, speaking for himself and Montague.

“Obviously we knew the challenges that they were facing, but we had built an amazing community there…and we were hopeful that it could survive,” Row continued. “But with COVID, I don’t know how many stores are going to survive this.”

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