A poet, a doctor, a muse: Meet the bookstore cats of Philadelphia

They’re often rescues, sometimes stars, and generally in their element.

One of bookstore cat Millie’s favorite things to do is rub against the corner of books at The Last Word

One of bookstore cat Millie’s favorite things to do is rub against the corner of books at The Last Word

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
ashaprihar-headshot

When you walk into Molly’s Books and Records on South 9th Street, there’s a chance the worker who greets you might not be a human.

Don’t worry, it’s not one of those weird grocery store robots. It’s Mrs. Stevenson, the store’s resident gray-striped cat, who sometimes lifts up her paw and “waves” at customers as they enter.

“It’s just so you know she’s there,” said store manager John Dickie. “Just to get your attention.”

Mrs. Stevenson is the latest in a long string of cats who’ve spent their days hanging around Molly’s — and she’s far from the only feline who’s made herself at home at one of Philadelphia’s many indie bookstores. At least four Philly bookstores have a live-in cat right now, and even more shops have had cats who’ve since switched gears and now enjoy housecat life.

The booksellers’ adorable occupants often sit in windows and draw in cat-loving passersby, find shelves or tables or chairs where they can lounge (or hide), bask in customers’ attention, and contribute to their shops’ cozy, homey vibes just by their very presence.

“They definitely add a little character,” said Larry Maltz, owner of The Last Word Bookshop in University City. “I also like the fact that it’s not corporate, you know what I mean? You don’t go into CVS and see a cat … it adds to that people’s aesthetic of what an independent bookstore should do.”

Bookstore cats aren’t just a Philly thing. Over 55,000 people follow the New York City-based Instagram account @bookstorecats, which is dedicated to showing off felines residing at independent bookstores all over, from Missouri to Texas to Hawaii.

Geoffrey Chaucer appears after a treat bag is shaken at the Book Corner in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood

Geoffrey Chaucer appears after a treat bag is shaken at the Book Corner in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Amanda Barstow, a self-described cat person who works for the literary apparel company Out of Print, started the Instagram account in 2015, after noticing how many of the indie bookstores she worked with had cats living in them. The cats are often rescues, she said, whether they were adopted from a shelter or just showed up outside of a bookstore one day.

Barstow has since found that the phenomenon is worldwide — there are a lot in Italy, Spain, Australia, and parts of South America, she said.

“There’s a ton of content, so there’s never a shortage,” Barstow said. “I’m finding new bookstores with cats all the time.”

Bookstore cats are such a popular idea that a collection of bookstore cat merch is among Out of Print’s bestsellers, per Barstow.

What is it about bookstores and cats that go together? Philly booksellers all gave different answers, and most of them came down to the same idea: the vibes simply align.

“Everyone wants some degree of peace and quiet when they’re browsing a bookstore, and cats are really great at peace and quiet,” said Victoria Mier, owner of The Spiral Bookcase in Manayunk. “So they can hang out with you, but in a very chill way that they’re not bothering you. Also, they look really cute curled up on a stack of books, and that’s just science.”

The combination of the bookstore environment and a resident cat also seems to have a sort of sentimentality to it, suggested Miro D. Bullo, a sales associate and the manager of the music department at The Book Trader in Old City — even for people who aren’t big readers.

“It’s almost like a Normal Rockwell painting,” Bullo said.

Even though they’re pretty much equally able to draw smiles and happy tears (we here at Billy Penn do NOT pick favorites when it comes to cute animals), each of Philly’s bookstore cats tugs at the heartstrings in its own special way. Here’s a look at some of the bookstore cats of Philadelphia: their origin stories, their lives, and their daily antics.

Molly’s Books and Records: Mrs. Stevenson

Mrs. Stevenson receives some love from dad Joe at Molly's Books and Records in Philadelphia’s Italian Market Neighborhood

Mrs. Stevenson receives some love from dad Joe at Molly's Books and Records in Philadelphia’s Italian Market Neighborhood

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

On a warm summer’s day, you might find Mrs. Stevenson resting in the window of Molly’s Books and Records in the Italian Market. (Draftiness from other seasons can get a bit cold for her.) And she might just convince you to come in.

In the words of shop co-owner Joe Ankenbrand, “She’s a people magnet. People see her, and they come into the bookshop.”

Bookstore cats aren’t a new thing to Molly’s, where there were even four cats at once at one point. But Mrs. Stevenson — who’s named after a character in a sketch from a Canadian comedy show — is right up there with some of the best ones the store has had, said bookstore co-owner and founder Molly Russakoff.

Mrs. Stevenson had a few different homes after being rescued from the streets by a former employee at the bookstore, but none of them worked out until she landed at Molly’s four or five years ago, where she lives upstairs with the family who runs the shop. Since she’s a rescue, her age is a mystery (Russakoff called her “forever young”).

The youthful-in-spirit animal is very sweet and docile, Russakoff said. She absolutely loves humans, and she’ll sometimes greet customers by lifting her paw, or follow people around the store as they shop.

“She has a great personality — she makes up for the rest of us,” Russakoff joked.

The Last Word Bookshop: Millie

Millie reaches for her balled up piece of paper under the shelves at The Last Word Bookshop

Millie reaches for her balled up piece of paper under the shelves at The Last Word Bookshop

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Millie, the feline resident at The Last Word Bookshop at 220 S. 40th St., loves sitting on shop owner Larry Maltz’s lap, lounging on a cat-sized hammock near the local history section, hiding underneath a table filled with children’s books, or chilling on the checkout counter.

While she’s on the checkout counter, she loves using her paw to knock down any objects that happen to be sitting on the edge of the cash register — paper clips, allen wrenches, you name it.

The shop’s beloved cat of 15 years, Lester, passed away in spring 2021. Millie came along when a stranger who’d heard about it told Maltz about a cat they knew who needed a new home, because its owner was moving into an assisted living facility.

Maltz wasn’t sure if the store was ready for a new cat so soon after Lester’s passing, but he asked them to send a photo anyway.

“They sent me a picture of Millie,” he said, “and I said, ‘Ooo, don’t let her get away.'”

The four-year-old torby (tortoiseshell/tabby mix) took a few months to adjust to her surroundings, per Maltz, but she’s now much more social and wanders all around the shop. She’s a little skittish around small kids, he said, but she’s otherwise very friendly — and has made plenty of friends who drop in and visit.

“People come in all the time just to see her,” Maltz said. They have no interest at all in books at all, nothing. They come in just to see the cat.”

Book Corner: Geoffrey Chaucer

Chaucer, the cat who lives at the Book Corner in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood

Chaucer is content to look out the door of the Book Corner in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Found lounging around the Friends of the Free Library’s bookstore at 311 N. 20th St., Geoffrey Chaucer — or just Chaucer, for short — loves to sleep (relatable).

The long-haired mix rescue cat is a decade old, per the store’s manager, and he started living in the shop when he was around two years old. He gets along well with customers, though he doesn’t always love when people crowd around him.

“We love having him as a companion,” the bookstore wrote in an email to Billy Penn. “We are lucky he puts up with us and the floor traffic of the book shop. We adore him, and he brings a lot to the customer and crew alike.”

It’s not too hard to spot Chaucer’s food and designated napping spots around the store, but don’t be surprised if he’s a little harder to find: one of his favorite places to nap is out of plain sight, on a bed beneath the bookshelves.

The Book Trader: Dr. Abraham Pickles

Dr. Pickles hangs out in the window at the Book Trader in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood

Dr. Pickles hangs out in the window at the Book Trader in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

As you approach The Book Trader at 7 N. 2nd St., you might spot a couple clues the shop you’re about to enter has a feline occupant. Instead of a warning about dogs, the young tree outside is labeled “CATS ONLY, PLEASE.” On the shop door is a little paper speech bubble with a request: “CAUTION: Please don’t let frisky cat outside! Thank you.”

You might just see the “frisky” orange-and-white cat himself, Dr. Abraham Pickles — who’s actually kinda lazy, said sales associate Bullo — staring out the window.

Dr. Pickles, who’s around 6 years old, has lived in the store about half his life. As is the case with many of Philly’s other bookstore cats, he was not the shop’s first: they’ve had at least three others in the past, Bullo said. The current cat used to belong to a friend of the owner who was moving.

One of Dr. Pickles’ favorite pastimes is sleeping, Bullo said, whether it’s in the front window, on a table, or a chair on the second floor.

He’s certainly earned all his naps — he does have a doctorate, after all. If you’re wondering about the subject of that PhD, it really depends who you ask (the owner will reportedly tell you ornithology; Bullo says napping).

Dr. Pickles is pretty friendly to customers, though he’s delivered a few bites or scratches after being pet too much, Bullo said. He loves watching birds and people through the shop’s glass door, and he sometimes follows customers around the shop — particularly ones who bring in their dogs.

The curious cat has developed a bit of a fan club. Some folks stop in just to see him, and the store sells postcards of Dr. Pickles for $2. You can even follow him on Instagram.

The Spiral Bookcase: Calliope (retired)

Calliope is a former bookstore cat at The Spiral Bookcase in Manayunk

Calliope is a former bookstore cat at The Spiral Bookcase in Manayunk

Courtesy The Spiral Bookcase

Not every cat is cut out for bookstore life — and that became clear to Spiral Bookcase owner Victoria Mier when she took store cat Calliope home with her during the pandemic.

The store, presently located at 4257 Main St. in Manayunk, used to have a beloved cat named Amelia, who passed away several springs ago, Mier said. Calliope came on the scene the month of Amelia’s death, when the bookstore was hosting a cat adoption day with a local rescue.

The store’s staff wasn’t sure they were ready to move on, but Calliope convinced them to foster her by being her adorable self.

“It was like she knew who was in charge of the bookstore,” Mier said. “And she was really just trying to make eye contact with us. She was like, ‘I’m really cute. I look really good in here. I look similar to Amelia, but I’m my own lady.’ And we were all like, ‘Damn, we really love that cat.'”

Calliope — who’s now a 7- or 8-year-old Torby — was pretty shy and hid behind stacks of books for her few months, Mier said, but gradually came out of her shell. She had favorite customers who she could recognize by voice, and she loved to do figure-eights (accompanied by loud meows) around booksellers’ feet to get their attention.

Calliope also had a bit of a villainous streak during her time as bookstore cat: she loved to “terrorize” little dogs that came into the shop, Mier said, and sometimes enjoyed playing tricks on unsuspecting customers.

Leading up to the COVID pandemic, Calliope became more reserved and less social, Mier said, but the vet confirmed there was nothing physically wrong. Once the pandemic hit and the bookstore had to close, Mier took Calliope home with them.

“Her personality like, exploded,” Mier said. “She got so much more comfortable, way less skittish, so now she is my little baby princess housecat.”

Even though she’s technically not a bookstore cat anymore, we’re giving Calliope an honorary spot on the Philly bookstore cat lineup anyway. After all, it’s 2022. Bookstore cats can work from home, too.

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