From the street it doesn’t look like a much; a storefront frozen in time, random books gathering dust in the window. If you’re not paying attention you’ll miss it. Or even worse dismiss it as a somebody’s compulsive hoarding turned into a shop that dabbles in unkept and unloved books among large piles of other useless ephemera.
The unvarnished facade masks one of the city’s great hidden treasures. A bulwark against the passing of time and changing of popular tastes. Like all things worth knowing, it only reveals itself to those brave and willing to get into the belly of thing, explore its rhythms, let a search reach its serendipitous end.
Big box retailers, their online everything brethren, and chain stores have captured our imagination and wallets with fine tuned algorithms calibrated to deliver micro-doses of sedate happiness. Banks bathed in antiseptic fluorescent light have followed them into the heart of the Main Street of our minds. Coffee shops, restaurants, and beauty salons are all that survive in their wake as viable small businesses catering to the last of our personal needs that can only be fulfilled through human interaction at micro scale.
Out of that cultural rubble stands Bookhaven on 22nd and Fairmount Street, the last real used bookstore in Philadelphia. Where everyone else has succumbed to insurmountable market forces, escalating rents in gentrified and gentrifying neighborhoods, and thankless hours of manual labor required to sift through customer drop-offs for sellable volumes then file them into an easily discernible and commercially tenable order, Bookhaven has remained the Platonic ideal of the dying form.
You realize it as soon as you enter the front door. The soft and unobtrusive sound of classical music sets the tone for the visit. A large fiction section greets you at the entrance and starts in alphabetical order at the first shelf you come in contact with. It isn’t weighed down by mass market titles that are instead relegated to their own tiny section in a corner as a form of appeasement rather than necessity for regular customers.
It’s a serious collection, managed by people who know what they are doing. I’ve been going there for years and can’t remember a time where I didn’t come home with something I discovered while browsing and had to read. It’s the place I went back to time and again as I made my way through the entire oeuvre of Don DeLillo, Paul Beatty, Steve Erickson, Elena Ferrante, Kazuo Ishiguro, Dana Spiotta, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem, and many many others. It’s where I always come with a list of books I want to read and leave with more.
When you finally pass through to the back rooms you get a taste of history, then poetry, and science. Upstairs you may get sidled by a cat looking for attention or sleeping on a sofa, basking in customer attention, projecting a calmness that enhances the mood as you continue to browse. I always like to bring home at least one book from the culture and sociology section as well as cinema. Sometimes something will stand out to me in economics or essays as well. You can also find art, music, and philosophy up there. There is a respectable selection for every taste without catering to fads and what is hot.
A good bookstore isn’t only about the books though. I like the way the floor squeaks whenever you take a step on the second floor and the way hard-soled shoes hitting the hardwood steps echo through both floors. I like how people speak in hushed tones and, if they’re quiet, you can only really hear them when they’re moving. The store forces you to focus on the books and not yourself. Recently I imagined the tens of thousands of voices, who put their energy over many months and years, into the completion of those texts. Many were ignored the second they were printed and somehow still made their way to that store, the spines generating at least a sliver of attention, waiting for the day someone will crack them open and connect with that physical artifact, that example of someone else’s mental labor laid bare. Then there are the more popular authors who the average person has also ignored but clientele seeks out with excitement.
I also think about the people who owned the books before me. Sometimes I’ll come across an old film stub or newspaper clipping used as a bookmark or just lost in time. Sometimes I’ll read the name of the previous owner printed on the first page; a bold pronouncement of ownership that I have trouble reconciling with the fact that it’s been discarded. Maybe it wasn’t a choice. Maybe life circumstances made that original claim tenuous over time. Maybe putting the book back into circulation with a piece of themselves attached to it was always the plan.
Looking now at my own shelves I’m forced to consider why I’ve chosen to collect and order them in such a way. I very rarely pulled them down and search for a particular passage. And I reread certain favorites sparingly, and usually as a burning whim. But that isn’t enough of a justification, is it? I don’t have a strong urge to collect the way an antiquarian collector may be driven, filling a kind of emotional void with niche objects. The only thing I know is they feel like a warm blanket. A source of comfort providing heat through their embedded voices. The writers behind the text have committed themselves to the production of a relic, and my collection is partly my own story told through what has driven my mind.
I only hope that Bookhaven and my romanticism of old media won’t soon be a relic as well.