How readers saved a beloved Philly bookshop from the brink

From left: Allen Crawford, John Pettit, Nikki Karam, Allitia DiBernardo, owner Patrick Richardson Graham, Laura Baird, and Noelle Egan in front of Brickbat Books in Queen Village.

Patrick Richardson Graham often talks about his little bookstore on Fabric Row in the plural — as in, “We’re open six days a week.”

But, really, there’s no “we.” Brickbat Books is a one-man shop. For a decade, Richardson Graham alone bought obscure art books, poetry volumes, and rare editions from estate sales, libraries, and collectors, and tracked the inventory in his head.

In September 2015, that business plan became untenable.

Richardson Graham, 54, a father of three, had been diagnosed with brain cancer. With months of radiation and chemotherapy ahead, it looked as though Brickbat would have to close. He was too sick to work and couldn’t afford help. “It’s a small business, so the difference between being in the red and being in the black — it’s a very fine line.”

What follows is not a story about friends who threw a beef-and-beer or ran a GoFundMe campaign. It’s the story of how more than a dozen people with day jobs and families of their own stepped in, rolled up their sleeves, and, for a year and a half, ran a local business they couldn’t stand to see disappear.

They didn’t even hesitate, said Nikki Karam, 33, a college librarian from Germantown.

“It seemed like it went without saying that we would do this, and that we would do it for as long as was necessary,” she said.

Camera icon TRACIE VAN AUKEN
Owner Patrick Richardson Graham in his bookstore, Brickbat Books.

That April, Richardson Graham had gone for a routine eye exam and learned he was seeing double. Soon, there was a diagnosis — brainstem glioma — followed by a biopsy that damaged his hearing, knocked out vision in one eye, and left him partially paralyzed.

“I was like, ‘I can do this,’ ” he said. “But by the end of radiation, I was coming in and putting my head down on the counter, just trying to get through a shift.”

Family, friends, and customers met to talk about what they could do.

“Right away, there were like 10 people who said, ‘We want to see this community hub and this legacy live as long as we can, because we believe in it,’ ” said Noelle Egan, 39.

Egan, who lives near the shop on South Fourth Street in Queen Village, became the manager, setting up a monthly schedule of volunteers. Laura Baird, 53, a musician and web designer from Center City, developed a manual for running the store: how to work the register and balance the books. Supporters organized poetry readings and concerts. Richardson Graham continued buying books, but helpers accompanied him to sales and helped lug purchases back to the store.

It was humbling and awkward to accept the assistance, he said. But he never worried his friends would let him down. “They’re all way overqualified to be working at a bookstore. They have master’s degrees. They’re librarians, artists, musicians.”

Still, it wasn’t simple to navigate Brickbat’s idiosyncracies. John Pettit, 37, an archivist, recalled an hour and half spent hunting for light switches. Egan, a librarian, considered (and then gave up on) making a written inventory.

“It’s frustrating,” she said. “If someone calls and asks for a book, you can’t look it up. But chances are we don’t have it, because there are only 3,000 books in the store.”

Camera icon TRACIE VAN AUKEN
Allen Crawford of Mount Holly counts the register at closing time at Brickbat Books. Crawford was one of several volunteers who stepped up when the owner was diagnosed with cancer, and he still puts in shifts at the store.

Still, the payoff was worth it. For Baird, who was new to Philadelphia, working in the store made her feel like part of the community.

For Allitia DiBernardo, 51, a neurologist who lives in Queen Village, it was the fulfillment of a long-held wish: As a Brickbat customer, she had always secretly yearned to work there.

And for Pettit: “It was a little selfish. Brickbat is such a local treasure. A lot of us want it to stick around because we go to shows there, talks there. It’s been a community space for a lot of different people.”

At first, Egan figured on a commitment of six months. Now, two years later, she still works occasional shifts. But gradually, as Richardson Graham’s health improved, he was able to take on more.

One night, Egan said, “I went over to the Richardson Grahams’ for dinner, and I felt like I was breaking up with him. I was like, ‘Patrick, I’m not going to do the monthly schedule anymore.’ ”

His health has reached a fragile stability. Every three months, he gets an MRI to assess whether his cancer is growing. “I could have another six months, or a year, or six years,” he said. He’s not sure how long Brickbat will remain.

The one thing volunteers couldn’t replace was his curatorial approach, based on his personal tastes and 20 years’ experience as a bookseller.

“To a great extent, the store reflects me,” he said. At first, while he was sick, sales plunged. “People walk in the door and expect to see me and get recommendations from me. Although, now, people walk in and ask, ‘Where’s Noelle? Where’s Laura?’ “