Sadly, not mysterious at all.
Big-box vendors such as Borders pounded independent dealers to smithereens in the early 2000s. Now the big boys are in trouble themselves. Borders faces possible Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and Barnes & Noble, the country's largest bookstore chain, recently laid off much of its buying staff, cutting about 50 jobs.
These days, book lovers don't need bricks-and-mortar stores. Not when online retailer Amazon.com will mail them books at a discount and connect them to used-book vendors at the click of a mouse. Or when they can instantly download the latest novel to their Kindle, Nook, iPad, or other gadget.
Germ thrived by creating and exploiting a niche, carrying new, used, and rare books on UFOs, mind control, and secret history. It offered shelter, both literal and figurative, to people and groups interested in everything from ESP to Thelemics, the religious faith founded by turn-of-the-century British occultist Aleister Crowley.
Promoting the legacy of Serbian scientist Nikola Tesla - the father of AC power and theorist of future antigravity airships - was a calling.
"In many ways," Williams said this week as he presided over a half-price going-out-of-business sale, Germ "was a tabula rasa. It was the kind of place where people felt comfortable. And people attached their own meaning to that."
As he spoke, small plastic Star Trek commandos battled their Planet of the Apes counterparts for top-shelf supremacy. A black-clad mannequin named Gunther kept watch on a back door.
All will be gone. And, with Williams, sorely missed, said Chris Augustin, a local paranormal investigator, who led a monthly UFO discussion group at Germ.
"The environment, from his decorations to the customers, spoke to the openness of the ideas in the store," he said. "People would come in because of those things."
No one who showed up at Germ, he said, had to fear being teased or ridiculed for her beliefs. The atmosphere was beyond tolerant - it was investigatory.
Set in a gray storefront at 2005 Frankford Ave., Germ helped lead the revival of a block that includes a coffee shop and a church. But Germ, which was open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, also was buffeted by changing trends and media.
While Germ never abandoned its post on the edge, the distance between mainstream and fringe has shrunk. Conspiracy and paranormal have become practically mainstream, and access to those ideas nearly universal.
Anyone eager to believe the U.S. government planned and executed the Sept. 11 attacks need only consult the Internet. On TV, shows such as Conspiracy Theory explore the Kennedy assassination and Area 51. Ghost Hunters has spawned so many imitators that it's impossible to keep track, and stories about whether the Mayan calendar predicts the coming end of the world - next year - appear in USA Today.
"Do those things replace Germ? I don't know," Williams said. "I don't imagine it will be as easy for the Church of Satan to find a venue in Philadelphia."
True enough. The same goes for the Raelians, the religious sect that believes man was created by space aliens. Way-out artists including the late Gary Bailey, who collected images of the Last Supper on everything from souvenir plates to paint-by-number sets, were welcome at the store.
Germ flowered in 2004, the vision of painter, designer, gun lover, gardener, punk rocker, and thinker Jennifer Bates, a woman who was always willing to hear an alternate version of history and developed several of her own. When she died of leukemia in 2007, her longtime boyfriend and silent partner stepped in.
Over time, the book shelves grew to include classic literature and poetry, along with, just for fun, the odd best-seller. Williams honored the founder's life and art through Germ's Jennifer Bates Memorial Gallery.
"This was a really refined distillation of our individual philosophy," Williams said.
It's not that he and Bates believed in every odd idea that came through the door - a door marked with a sign that states, "We milk Androids." But they did offer a willing ear, an attentive eye, and a tongue planted at least partway in cheek.
Williams issued a short news release saying that, effective Jan. 30, "the mission 'GERM Books & Gallery' is terminated. . . . 'Mutate or Die!' we warned. Today, we die."
When she heard Germ was closing, Ronda Goldfein - Bates' friend of 30 years, and executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania - said she thought it was so sad. But then:
"I was thinking about Jennifer's original idea - and it was to plant the germ of an idea. And she did that. The beauty of planting things is you never know what may turn out."
Goldfein is sure that someone - or many people - found in Germ the inspiration to create their own masterwork, whether that might appear as words on paper, paint on canvas, or even a commercial enterprise like a bookstore.
"You can't put that much love or energy into something," she said, "without it taking hold someplace."
Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415