How many brick-and-mortar bookstores do you think are still operating in Philadelphia?
Artist Henry Crane has spent the past year illustrating their storefronts for the new Philadelphia Bookstore Map. When he was first commissioned for the project, he told Billy Penn, he might’ve guessed the answer to the above question was around 25 — or maybe a few more.
The real number? Almost double that. Crane ultimately painted nearly four dozen bookshops.
Spearheaded by a group of local booksellers, the map is the culmination of a yearslong, crowdfunded effort. Along with Crane’s full-color paintings, it features descriptions, addresses, and contact information for each of 46 locations.
The map is meant to be more than just a directory, said Molly Russakoff, the owner of Molly’s Books and Records, who conceived of the project.
“Nobody’s going to be looking on the map [for] like, ‘How do I get there?’” Russakoff told Billy Penn. “We don’t need a map — but we need something positive. And we wanted to make it a piece of public art, rather than just a brochure that people will throw away. We want people to keep these.”
If you want one, keep an eye out for copies of the map the next time you’re in a Free Library branch or a Philly bookstore. You can take one for free.
How it came together
Russakoff first considered making a bookstore map in 2008 when local sellers were struggling to eke out a place in the market, she said, but never actually formalized a plan for it.
About a year and a half ago, she mentioned the idea to Crane, who suggested a painted map with storefronts. “Having somebody to work with,” Russakoff said, provided the motivation to actually resurrect the idea. Gina Dawson from Partners and Son and Curtis Kise from Neighborhood Books also agreed to help with the effort.
The team started putting the word out, tracking down the city’s many bookstores, and visiting locations to make sure they existed and were indeed dedicated bookstores. They also launched a GoFundMe last summer and raised $10,000 toward the effort.
While the map highlights what makes each store special and unique, Russakoff said, it also shows where there are gaps in the local scene. For instance, there’s no dedicated children’s bookstore, she said, nor is there a shop specifically for academic texts.
The map formally launched on Wednesday, and physical copies are expected to be available for free at bookstores across the city. 25,000 copies have been printed so far, with 25,000 more on the way.
The distribution plan isn’t super formalized, but the organizers are looking to get them into other community spaces like cafes, bookstores, and libraries.
Russakoff also hopes the artistic showcase of Philly’s bookstore scene might make its way to New York City. She said she gets a good number of New Yorkers visiting her store — and a chunk of the financial support for putting together the map actually came from NYC booksellers.
“I hope it brings people more business,” she said. “I hope people will look at the map and say, ‘Hey, there’s a little spot out there.’ Each shop is so unique in their vision and what they provide … You can see from the paintings how much care people take with their little spot. So I want that to come across, and then people can make the rounds.”
Highlighting ‘open, communal places’
Over half of the places included on the map sell new books, about a quarter sell used books, and a handful sell comics.
The 46 local purveyors of literature included on the map range from religion-focused storefronts (e.g. Al Minar Books & Fashion in West Philly, Straight from the Heart in the Far Northeast) to nonprofit establishments (e.g. The Head & The Hand in Kensington, Hilltop Books in Chestnut Hill) to places where you can find out-of-print editions (e.g. Brickbat Books in Queen Village, The Last Word in University City).
Crane said he’s seen a lot of enthusiasm from people over the course of working on the map. As the project neared its end, he said, the value that it will hold for Philadelphians has become “clearer and clearer.”
“People want to connect over things that they have a common interest in,” he said. “It’s often really hard, or intimidating if it’s like going to places you’ve never heard of. Bookstores are open, communal places for anyone … they’re friendly places. I think that’s why people care.”
Many of the mapped locations are participating in the Philly Bookstore Crawl later this summer, when a bunch of bookstores in and around the city will hold special events.
The crawl is organized by a different group from the one that created the bookstore map, but the spirit and goals are similar. The event is happening for the first time on Aug. 26 in hopes of it becoming an annual tradition.
Steve McLaughlin, the owner of Iffy Books, said he’s hoping the Philadelphia Bookstore Map will help draw more people to his store, a shop focused on “hacking, free culture, gardening, and adjacent topics,” per its website. It’s located inside of an artspace and doesn’t have a storefront of its own, so he often relies on flyering to get people in the door.
And as someone relatively new to bookselling, McLaughlin said, he’s also happy that the map has served to “nurture community among booksellers.”
“It’s been like a really great experience to get to meet all these other folks around Philly, many of whom had been selling books for decades,” said McLaughlin, who’s been selling books for about two years. “Everybody has been really friendly and welcoming. It’s made me feel like I’m in a community.”