Joseph Fox Bookshop in Center City closing after 70 years, as neighborhood bookstores press on

The Sansom Street store was a mainstay of the local literary scene.

The interior of Joseph Fox Bookshop was a destination in and of itself

The interior of Joseph Fox Bookshop was a destination in and of itself

Emma Lee / WHYY
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The finale is near for longtime Center City staple Joseph Fox Bookshop, which is set to close at the end of January. Its shutdown aligns with a trend affecting many downtown retailers, but there’s a bright counterpoint: the recent rise of independent bookstores in Philadelphia neighborhoods.

Founder Joseph Fox started selling out of the basement at 1724 Sansom St. in 1951, and the store remained at the address for nearly three-quarters of a century.

Specializing in books on architecture, along with literary fiction and nonfiction, art, poetry, and music, the shop is now run by Michael Fox, who took over after his father’s death in 1998. Also known for its children’s collection and considerable attention to small press and international works, Joseph Fox’s curtain call spread rapidly on social media, leading to laments from patrons and supporters.

“Best bookstore in Philly is closing,” one fan posted, “I’m about to end it all,”

“How can we be a great American city without downtown bookstores?” tweeted Monk’s Cafe, the famed Belgian beer bar a few blocks south of the shop.

“This is a nightmare,” wrote Pa. Senator Nikil Saval, in whose district the bookstore falls.

A receipt emailed to a customer who placed an online order first leaked the sad turn of events: “[W]e have recently learned that the store will likely be closing at the end of January,” the email from Joseph Fox Bookshop reads. “So sorry for the bad news.”

The exterior of Joseph Fox Bookshop on Sansom Street

The exterior of Joseph Fox Bookshop on Sansom Street

Center City District

The Inquirer on Tuesday confirmed the pending shutdown, citing decreased business during the pandemic and second-generation owner Michael Fox’s decision to retire. In addition to being a popular stop for regulars and tourists, the store was involved in city programming, serving for years as the official bookseller for the Free Library of Philadelphia Lecture Series and the location for several of the library’s off-site author events.

Several upcoming Free Library events say books are now provided by Uncle Bobbie’s, a cafe and bookshop opened in Germantown five years ago. Despite hard times during the pandemic — and repeated vandalism attempts — the proudly Black-owned business is still thriving.

That’s also the case for Harriett’s Bookshop in Fishtown, which recently served as the launch site for Will Smith’s book tour; The Head & the Hand in Kensington, which added a date-night reservation option to see it through COVID closures, and A Novel Idea on East Passyunk, which has leaned heavily into virtual and on-site events.

A few months ago, Publishers Weekly reported nationwide growth in American Booksellers Association membership, buoyed by smaller, independent bookstores.

Joseph Fox Bookshop persevered through hard times before. When chain brands like Barnes & Noble began popping up in Philadelphia in the ’90s, the Fox family’s “individualized, knowledgeable and personal service” was a key factor keeping it ahead of the game, a 2001 Family Business feature noted. The family leaned into volume purchases, serving authors and businesses holding book readings or signings.

More Center City storefronts are sitting empty right now than before the pandemic. According to a recent Center City District report, the September 2021 vacancy rate in the district was 17.4%. That’s better than the beginning of 2021, when it was, 18.1% but a sizable shift from a couple years prior.

For Center City’s “prime downtown retail corridors of West Walnut Street and West Chestnut Street,” the report said, the 2019 vacancy rate was approximately 6%, compared to 22% and 25% last fall.

The woes of retail locations have been evident across the city. West Philly’s Penn Book Center closed in 2020 after a drawn out struggle to keep it afloat.

There are whispers that Walnut Street’s Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore, an outpost of an NYC operation that opened in 2018, is also on its way out. The location at 1632 Walnut St. is listed as available on real estate websites, with wording that refers to the bookstore in the past tense.

A person who answered the phone at Shakespeare & Co. denied the closing rumors, however, calling the listing nothing but “smoke and mirrors” by a person who answered their phone.

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