Browsing the aisles in a fine and thoughtfully stocked bookstore is a delight that's lasted centuries, one that technology and packaging cannot improve. There's nothing like the thrill of finding one more title by an old favorite author, or discovering a new writer with something to say.
And the independent bookstore has its own rhythm. Television and the movies rush you along frantically. A bookstore is a place to set your own pace, to pick out your own trail among thousands of ideas. It's usually quiet. There are no videos telling you how to tie a scarf, no heavy metal groups screaming their latest hit, no signs warning "you break it, you bought it."
You could make a night of it.
A bunch of factors contribute to the improved health of small booksellers. The chains' growth has all but stopped, because the market for marked-down best-sellers is saturated, bookstore owners say, adding that publishing companies have again begun to court the small stores as they realize that they need both kinds of retailers to move books.
And the little book shops even got a public relations boost from the ''Satanic Verses" controversy. The independent booksellers defied the Ayatollah's threats and continued to carry the book, as the corporate chains chickened out and dropped Salman Rushdie's novel. That affair dramatized the role that books and the people who sell them play in a free society.
In Philadelphia, a handful of independent book shops has survived the onslaught of the chains. Each of these small businesses has done it in its own way; one by mixing discount, used and new books, another by specializing in instructional texts, another by stubbornly carrying high-quality undiscounted books.
When you're looking for a book, there's no such thing as a "best" bookstore. And a good shop changes constantly, reflecting the feelings of its owner and its patrons. That said, here's a look at a group of individual businesses, each offering something different to the visitor.
Founded in 1936, Robin's Book Store is the oldest independent in the city. Owner Larry Robin says the chains made it tough, but sees better times ahead.
"One of the attractions away from the independents was price - we couldn't really compete there," says Robin. "Now, what the chains are doing is trimming their stock. Poetry doesn't sell, so it's gone, literature doesn't sell, so it's gone, and so on. People go into these big places and there's all the beautiful spread-out merchandise, but if they have any real interest in something, there's no depth."
"Really, what it comes down to is price. Price versus depth of stock. Price versus service. Price versus knowledgable staff. All they have is price," Robin laughs.
Though his store and others have endured the coming of discount books, Robin is still indignant about the changes in the business. "The real damage the discounters did was degrading the value of the book - this 'whatever the price is, I-can-get-it-cheaper' mentality. They really undercut the respect of society for the book by making it a product," says Robin. "It's not product - it's ideas - writing and books are the foundations of freedom. Bookstores are really part of the cultural community, not the mercantile community."
Robin's walks a canny line between the commerce and culture with a good selection of popular books, political works, and an extensive used magazine section. Oh yes, and lots of poetry - Robin's sponsors readings and book signing by authors and is supportive of local writers. True to his political roots, Robin founded and is president of a new group, the Mid-Atlantic Booksellers Association, which is fighting to make sure the publishing community respects the little shops.
ROBIN'S BOOK STORE, 1837 Chestnut St. (567-2615) Mon.-Thu., 9 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 9 a.m.-10:30p.m.; Sun., 1-9 p.m. And 108 S. 13th, (735-9600) Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-6p.m.; Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Closed Sun.
Joseph Fox's bookstore is tucked into a tiny basement space on Sansom Street. Inside, along with his wife, Madeline, and son, Michael, he stocks an incredibly diverse collection, running from massive art, architectural and photography albums, to Penguin fiction, Dover reprints, and a beautiful children's section.
Michael Fox says the store weathered the discount wars by never, ever discounting, and by stocking quality. "We've done well because we put a great effort into our selection. A lot of the stores that relied on best-sellers were the ones that went under when Encore started discounting. To tell you the truth, I don't know what's on the best-seller list," Fox confesses.
Unlike the chains, Fox's doesn't keep computerized lists of their daily sales."We just kind of eyeball the stock," says Fox. "And we get a feel
from customers for what they want."
Like the other independents, Joseph Fox handles hundreds of book orders for customers. The atmosphere is a little more hushed than the bustle at Robin's, and Fox notes happily that his customers "baby" his books - the store doesn't have the shelf copies often left up front to wear the fingerprints of too many hands.
But Fox's is still a lively operation; on a recent visit, Philadelphia author/historian John Francis Marion jumped behind the counter to field a phone call when things got rushed.
JOSEPH FOX BOOKS 1724 Sansom St. (563-4184) Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
House of Our Own Books occupies the first and second floors of a big twin on Spruce Street in University City, selling new books downstairs and used above. Started as a cooperative in the 1960s, it's grown into the premiere store for political and sociological texts on the East Coast, possibly in the United States.
Co-owner Debbie Sanford says professors from all over the country stop into House of Our Own because they can find the political texts and literary critiques they want nowhere else. Even in a good independent bookstore, you'll be lucky to find more than a dozen books on the Third World. There's an entire section devoted to those works here, with subsections on various Third World issues.
The global approach includes a huge selection of books about almost every country in the world, from political treatises to poetry to media analyses of Japanese TV, to corporate planning in North Ireland and on and on. Some of the offerings are dense post-graduate stuff, but others are more reader- friendly. It's all the sort of selection that could flourish only in an intellectual community like the Penn campus.
HOUSE OF OUR OWN BOOKS, 3920 Spruce St. (222-1576) Mon.-Thu., Noon-7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., Noon-6 p.m.
One of the most heartening sights for any reader is the successful opening of a new bookstore. Canal Books in Manayunk recently celebrated its first birthday on Main Street, among yuppie furniture stores and blue-collar cheesesteak joints.
Kate O'Connor, Canal's proprietor, has struck a nice balance - literature, literary criticism, university presses, and art books co-exist with crafts, self-help and a children's section that rivals Joseph Fox's in quality. Like the other independents, Canal reflects its owner's leanings, as well as the customers. O'Connor notes firmly that Canal has no New Age section, though there are shelves titled Religion and Myth. A section on Native Americans has been added in response to requests, while the Business/Finance section is on the way out due to customer apathy.
O'Connor, trained as an artist, worked in real estate and on farms, before opening Canal Books. "I made a whole list of things I wanted to do, from rodeo riding to chicken farming, and this made the most sense."
She's not making a lot of money; no booksellers do. After a year, she still works seven days in the shop with only one part-time employee. "It's a hands- on business and always will be," she says, "and that's what makes it fun becoming apart of the street, of the community."
CANAL BOOK CO. 4536 Main St. Manayunk (487-3937) Mon., Noon-6 p.m.; Tue.- Wed., 11 a.m-8 p.m.; Thu.-Sat., 11 a.-10 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.