Tucked away in Port Richmond, a huge trove of books
Philadelphians who like their booksellers small and independent are fortunate. Despite big-box stores, online outlets, and e-books, there is still a nice selection of shops scattered throughout the city.
And almost five miles northeast of City Hall, beyond the hipster havens of Northern Liberties and Fishtown, lies Philly's most singular literary haven. Pressed against I-95, more than a mile east of the Market-Frankford line, Port Richmond Books, at 3037 Richmond St., is principally populated by neighborhood people and those who already know it's there.
Greg Gillespie opened Port Richmond Books in 2004 with the backing of his mentor, Deen Kogan, the founder of Society Hill Playhouse. The shop is in an old silent-movie theater turned hardware depot turned sprawling book fortress - "Kinda looks like the Alamo; you can't miss it," as Gillespie told me over the phone after I'd lost my way on Lehigh Avenue.
Perhaps due to the store's relative seclusion, Gillespie doesn't act like your average shopkeeper. When I first walked in, before I could announce my professional intentions, he eyed my bike and sweat-stained shirt. "You're the guy from Lehigh? Want some water?" Then, noting the great likelihood of my wasting away before his eyes (it was really hot outside), he decided more dramatic measures were necessary: "Or a beer?"
In my lengthy history of browsing, no bookstore owner has ever made so decent an offer. Fifteen minutes later, we were in the homey office a few steps from the entrance, drinks in hand, and discussing Vanity Fair. (Gillespie has a beautiful first edition for sale, complete with Thackeray's charmingly amateurish cartoons.) The visit turned into an extended literary loafing session, as did my return venture a month later. That's part of the charm of the place: Port Richmond Books feels more like a clubhouse with a sideline in bookselling than a business.
This impression is accentuated by the amazing variety of people who are in and out of the store. During the four hours or so I've spent at Port Richmond Books, an agreeable assortment of characters has popped in for a book, a beer, or a chat. An off-duty postman, an old Polish gentleman from the neighborhood, a few artists, retired municipal health inspectors (Gillespie hails from their ranks), and a guy who directs lottery commercials.
The neighborhood is predominantly populated by working-class people of Polish descent, and a lot of the older folks use the store as an ad hoc hangout. In addition to the teetering piles of Tolkien, crime novels, and Philadelphia history, Gillespie stocks information about the federal heating-subsidy program, veterans' benefits, and other assistance programs.
"I think of it more as a community center," Gillespie says. "A lot of people are on [Social Security] and fixed incomes, rooming in one-bedrooms, and they want to talk to somebody about interpreting the bureaucracy. So they come in here. Some people come in here looking for advice, others just want to vent, and a lot of people just come in here to [talk]."
But Port Richmond Books stocks plenty of actual books, too, more than 200,000. These range from Gillespie's prizes - a first-edition Ulysses, a signed book of Yeats' poetry - to rooms stuffed with pulpy thrillers and detective paperbacks. The store includes an additional 35,000 books that fall within these genres, all previously owned by Jay Kogan, Deen's husband and Gillespie's good friend, who died almost 20 years ago. "These are somewhat alphabetical," Gillespie says, as he shows off room after room of novels that all very likely begin with some variation of: "A shot rang out in the dark."
Appropriately, the shop co-hosts NoirCon every two years (next time in 2014). It's a celebration of all things shadowy, grim, and trench-coated, with an emphasis on Philly's own David Goodis and his profoundly bleak tales. It usually draws 100 to 250 aficionados, who range from devotees to novelists (George Pelecanos, who worked on the series The Wire, attended in 2010.)
In Port Richmond Books' vast back room, where audiences watched silent movies in the early decades of the 20th century, several sofas can accommodate a small crowd, and the space is regularly used by an array of groups with a desire for a unique backdrop. The room is mostly filled with towering bookshelves, although the ceiling is so high that they don't even come close to it. There is ample room for the full-height basketball hoop Gillespie installed - although the thing seems to be cursed, as I've never seen anyone make a successful shot.
Gillespie is hopeful about the store's future. Word of mouth is spreading as websites like hiddencityphila.org, philebrity.com, and unsungphilly.com proclaim the scruffy virtues of Port Richmond Books. He says sales are picking up, even though the store no longer does any trade online - "I type like a cop," Gillespie explains - and new, younger people are beginning to move into the neighborhood, too: "the overflow of Fishtown."
And there's still plenty of room in back. Surveying his kingdom, Gillespie inspects a relatively clean stretch of floor. "Maybe I'll try to get a Ping-Pong table in here."
Jake Blumgart is a freelance writer and researcher in Philadelphia. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.