It's easy for a bibliophile, or anyone, to get lost in used book stores

Caroline Schmidt scans a possible purchase at Port Richmond Books.
Caroline Schmidt scans a possible purchase at Port Richmond Books. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 12, 2013

It's easy for a bibliophile, or anyone, to get lost in Port Richmond Books, where hardcovers and paperbacks are packed on shelves, stacked in aisles, tucked into corners near the piano, the couch, the basketball backboard, and the ping-pong net.

Interested in Philadelphia noir? Here's David Goodis' Shoot the Piano Player. Contemporary Irish literature? There's a whole wall of that, too. In fact, the sprawling 6,000-square-foot store, housed in a former silent movie theater, holds more than 75,000 titles, give or take 10,000.

And yet, longtime customers say, owner Greg Gillespie knows his store and his books.

"If you come in and say, 'I need something on American Indians, the Sioux tribe,' he'll say, 'Oh, yeah. Right back here.' And he'll take you right to it," said Gil Sokolow, a Northeast Philadelphia resident who discovered the store about six years ago. "I don't know how he does it."

It's not an easy time for bricks-and-mortar bookstores in this era of e-books and online ordering. Borders closed its nearly 400 stores in 2011. Robin's Books, a Center City staple for 76 years, turned the page at the end of 2012.

But that hasn't deterred used-book stores from opening, and thriving, throughout the Philadelphia area.

Some, like Port Richmond Books in Port Richmond, are jam-packed warehouses that encourage exploration. Gillespie said he had accidentally turned out the lights on customers who had lost track of time amidst the stacks, suddenly hearing, "Are you closing?"

Others, like Cathy's Half Price Books in Havertown, are more compact and meticulously organized, sprinkling a handful of new books among the more worn titles.

"It was slow starting out . . . but we just had our best year ever," said Shannon Rutherford, who opened the store with his eponymous wife in 2004. "I don't see books going anywhere anytime soon. There's always someone who will prefer a tangible book over a digital book. With less books on the market, the value of used books goes up."

Thomas Baldwin, whose family has owned and operated Baldwin's Book Barn in West Chester since 1946, said people who own bookstores have "the gentle madness." While he has definitely seen business contract over the last 10 years, he also sees what could be signs of life: Last weekend, for example, was the busiest one he'd seen in a decade, and he recently booked a wedding at the 12,000-square-foot Barn for April. He's also planning to open a coffee shop on site.

"We need activity," he said. "I have a positive feeling about it. I think we still have a very good chance to be successful like we used to be. If I have coffee and enough events here, I think it'll be fine."

Baldwin, whose store draws visitors from as far away as China, said he had also read how consumers were starting to turn away from Internet shopping. Instead, they want to see and touch the products they're buying.

"People are coming back," he said. "They want to see their merchandise."

As a general rule, it seems, bookstore owners are addicted to reading and acquiring books. At the peak of his bibliomania, Gillespie admits, he lied to his wife about his extracurricular activities.

"I had friends, and we'd say we were going out drinking and we'd go to bookstores instead," he said. "I filled my house up, putting books under the baby's crib."

Rutherford said it was an obsession with the written word that pushed him and his wife to open their store.

"The biggest joy is being surrounded by what you love, which is books, and having people come in who also love books and you have discussions you can't really have anywhere else," he said. "No one in the book business isn't in it for the passion, at least no one I ever met."

In South Jersey, John Martosella started out more businessman than bibliophile. The entrepreneur has opened three Book Swap locations, carrying a mix of used and new books, since 2010. The first, in Medford, filled a need in that community, he said.

"Medford isn't a foot traffic town. People make it a point to get in their cars and drive to the store. They actively support it," he said.

The latest store, on Kings Highway in Haddonfield, opened just in time for the December shopping season.

"I always hit garage sales and Craigslist every day," Martosella said. "You have to. It's one thing drumming up inventory to open the store, but you can't get lazy with that. You still have to make money."

But a bit of book craziness also has taken hold of Martosella. He has already found some treasures, including an early edition of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol that he says is valued at $600.

"I'm learning as I go," he said, "and my love of books has skyrocketed."

Almost every Saturday, a group of regular customers gather at Port Richmond Books to poke through the piles and swap stories with Gillespie. On a recent weekend, local Cindy Burstein explored one corner of the store while her 3-year-old son, Jack, played on the piano.

"I like used books because you find things you might not expect," said Burstein, who visits the store monthly. "With all the chain bookstores out there, it's nice to be in a space that has its own personality. It's not the same mold."

Judith Korey was in town from Washington, D.C. The Philadelphia native always has one question when she visits: Will there be time for a trip to the bookstore?

"I always want to know if I'll have a chance to get here. I've found some amazing things," Korey said. "I try to collect some first editions and Greg's introduced me to new series. I come here to see what I should read next."

Store owner Gillespie said his passion for books hadn't ebbed since he opened the store in 2005. He's living a book lover's dream, surrounded by words, reading constantly, sharing his passion with others.

"My house is filling up again," he said. "There's just so much out there to read," he said. "It's a great life."

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