Two weeks ago, it looked as if the last chapter in the 57-year story of the oldest independent bookstore on the University of Pennsylvania campus was written.

Penn Book Center announced on April 8 that it could not afford to stay open. Co-owners Michael Row and Ashley Montague cited “losses due to the explosion of online sales of books at cut-rate prices” and planned to sell off their inventory and close by the end of May.

“I can’t beat Amazon’s prices,” Row said. “I can understand a student saying they can’t afford the price difference. But if only half the people who took pictures of the books with their iPhones bought them, it would be a different story.”

But a groundswell of support just might pull the struggling book shop — an oasis for the region’s poets, literati, and intelligentsia — back from the brink. The owners are heartened by the possibility of students, professors, and even the university getting involved to help them figure out how to make it a profitable business.

‘Quite overwhelming’

It started with an online petition launched by a Penn professor, calling on the Ivy League school to help save Penn Book Center from going under. As of Wednesday afternoon, the petition had collected more than 4,500 electronic signatures.

Daily rallies this week on the Penn campus have attracted dozens of placard-wielding faculty members, graduate students, undergrads, and local residents demanding that the university engage with the store’s owners to help find a solution that will keep Book Center from dying.

“We’re flabbergasted by the outpouring,” said Row. “We’re like ‘Wow! What did we do?’ It’s really quite overwhelming.”

The effort to save the bookstore comes from genuine need, its supporters said.

“It’s the only scholarly independent bookstore in Philadelphia," said Chi-ming Yang, an associate professor of English at Penn who has led the campus demonstrations. "We’re going to do everything we can to keep it open.”

Penn professor Chi-ming Yang (with handheld mic) leads a chant to save the Penn Book Center at a rally at the University of Pennsylvania on Monday.
Penn professor Chi-ming Yang (with handheld mic) leads a chant to save the Penn Book Center at a rally at the University of Pennsylvania on Monday.

Souvenirs vs. high-quality literature

The Penn Book Center sits on the corner of 34th and Sansom Streets and is not to be confused with the University of Pennsylvania Bookstore, two blocks to the west, which is operated by Barnes and Noble.

The University of Pennsylvania Bookstore “is pitiful,” said Avneet Randhawa, a college undergrad who is majoring in English. “The main thing they sell is the ‘Penn Experience.’ It’s all about Penn T-shirts, water bottles, souvenir trinkets, and other swag. You may find copies there of [T.S. Eliot’s] The Wasteland or a volume of Joan Didion. But for writers like Eudora Welty and Richard Wright, you need the Penn Book Center.”

There are two more independent bookstores nearby: Last Word and House of Our Own. But the Penn Book Center is a rare star in the city’s intellectual firmament.

Orchid Tierney is a doctoral candidate at Penn who has spent hours perusing the shelves at Book Center, which operates in a 2,500-square-foot space owned by the university.

“It's a very important space for the intellectual community,” said Tierney, whose dissertation focuses on waste management and poetry. “It’s pretty much one-of-a-kind. They’re focused on literature and they don’t sell sweatshirts.”

Yang, the professor, said university administrators were aware of the uproar and have scheduled a meeting on Thursday to discuss the Book Center.

An overall view of Penn Book Center, a university city institution, from the second-floor book selection area.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
An overall view of Penn Book Center, a university city institution, from the second-floor book selection area.

“There’s definitely momentum right now,” she said. “I hope the business people will sit in a room and help brainstorm ideas to keep it running. Already they have one person in the small-business center who has offered help with consulting.”

Row, who has owned the bookshop since 2005 with his wife, Ashley Montague, said the outcry already has attracted some potential investors.

“We didn’t even shop the thing. But I’m talking with several parties that may be interested,” Row said. “One is even a refugee from the academic world like us. It’s going to take a lot of new energy and new money.”

Numbers don’t add up

Row said he couldn’t afford to invest any more money into the shop himself.

“We haven’t taken any salary or made a profit during the past two years,” Row said. “On top of working for free we put about $25,000 into [the shop] in 2017 and $35,000 in 2018. It was cash flow that was covered by liquidating inventory. But between 2017 and 2018, our sales dropped by $300,000.”

The losses began to mount after Amazon installed an Amazon Depot on campus in 2016. The next semester, course books sales “tanked 20 percent,” he said. “It was insane. The only time we ran out of stock was when Amazon ran out of stock. We made no profit and decided we either had to go out of business or change things.”

Changing things meant extending hours, ending sales of course books, and aggressively adding cultural programs — poetry readings, book signings, author conversations.

“It just hasn’t worked,” Row said. “It may just be about getting new blood in with a skill set that we don’t have.”

Row said in addition to talking to potential new investors, he and Montague are looking at other business structures. They’ve considered becoming a nonprofit, selling memberships, and, alas, continuing to sell off inventory. They’re also talking to other college town independent book stores to see what has worked for them.

“We’re not really interested in just taking money to survive a little longer,” Row said. “Unless something concrete happens, we can’t risk it. In early May we’ll start discounting and sell what we can through Memorial Day.

“We’ll stay open as long as we can, but otherwise we’ll have to start packing stuff up.”

A customer at Penn Book Center, in University City, ponders her choices of literature as she walks through the aisles of books earlier in the week.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
A customer at Penn Book Center, in University City, ponders her choices of literature as she walks through the aisles of books earlier in the week.