Mostly Books owner Joe Russakoff stands in the face of gentrification and the disappearance of neighborhood culture.
Joe Russakoff sits at a heavy wood table, shivering in the unremitting cold of a former South Philadelphia work yard. Our discussion quickly takes a macabre tone; he muses on death and ephemerality, an unexpected topic of conversation from a relatively successful, 50–year–old used book store owner, but one that begins to seem oddly fitting.
After all, he’s made much of his living as a trafficker of forgotten possessions, uncovered in estate sales and large–scale house cleanings and other hasty actions following a death in the family. When he discusses these sales, he smiles wistfully, fully aware of how foreign this must sound to a student whose interest in used bookstores has never transcended the staunchly literary.
Russakoff continues rambling about estate sales, unbothered by the chill. “It’s kind of morbid,” he admits halfway through the interview, and he laughs uncontrollably, his voice reverberating like seismic shifts after an earthquake, his mouth open wide. He has owned Mostly Books, a used bookstore in the Queen Village neighborhood of South Philly, for twelve years; after such an extensive, difficult residency, which required him to “live off nothing for a long time,” he’s markedly prone to laughter.
And Russakoff really does have a lot to be happy about: he has made a living in books, an increasingly endangered medium, by embracing mom–and–pop shabbiness, an increasingly endangered business model. And though he has co–opted his vast literary collection with a hodgepodge of CDs, DVDs, VHS tapes, vinyl, vintage photographs and kitschy art pieces (or tchotchkes, as he refers to them), his focus has always remained squarely on the books. His literary collection is comprised of more than a hundred thousand titles; most other products weigh in at only a few thousand. Mostly Books seems an oddly literal name.
Ranked by City’s Best — a cultural guide to major American Cities — as one of the top five independent bookstores in Philadelphia, Mostly Books has come to gradual preeminence among Philadelphia bibliophiles for its unabashed oddness. It’s the kind of store that rarely persists in modern American cities — it’s unglamorous, it lacks the meticulous organization of chain bookstores and it has no plans of changing with the marketplace. And atop it all, there is Joe, a smallish middle aged man with beady eyes and a nasal voice, with hair and clothing straight out of the seventies. Joe, like Mostly Books, like much of South Philly, is somewhat frozen in time. But, in the world of used books, that doesn’t really seem to be a problem.
Like its owner and its contents, the physical structure of the store seems anachronistic. The storefront, on Bainbridge Street, is the only ordinary aspect of the lot. Its appearance is slightly industrial and worn down, its brick façade representative of the gritty yet elegant architecture of the surrounding neighborhood.
The room furthest from the street was once a manufacturing site, according to Russakoff, but several elderly customers have told him of other uses. “People from different ages come in and say [things like], ‘I used to come to punk rock shows here,’” Joe adds, his voice breaking into a prematurely geriatric whine. Other “old–timers,” as Russakoff calls them, claim that the space used to be a sort of speakeasy, or “after–hours club.”
Russakoff speaks frequently of these old–timers, whose presence in the neighborhood, in his view, indicates a strong attachment to history and tradition that has likely been lost in other, more gentrified, areas. “People are around here long–term,” he says, “and they’ll never leave.” He describes several of them as “growing up on the street,” and he seems to endow this crop of neighborhood fixtures with a near–mystical brand of savvy and urban wisdom.
Russakoff — who lives in the Queen Village area — attributes the difficulties of running a store in this neighborhood to the fact that, “People I don’t like know I don’t like them.” He speaks about the permanence of the residents in a markedly negative light, noting that, “A lot of the good old people died, but the people I didn’t like are still around.” Among the dead are his landlord, who was around 90 when Joe moved in, as well as another local business owner, John Paul, to whom Russakoff felt especially close. “It’s really kind of sad,” he adds.
What’s left, according to Russakoff, is “an old–time ghetto scene.” He references “slumlords,” crack addicts and “small–time thieves” as major offenders. He also insists that the local community is averse to reading, and especially forking over money for a book, which doesn’t bode well for his business. “A lot of people around here,” he explains, “they’ll do anything rather than actually pay for a book. It’s kind of frustrating sometimes.”
Yet however frustrated Joe is, his neighbors don’t necessarily feel the same way. An employee at Philly Aids Thrift, a non–profit thrift store across Bainbridge Street, references the area as an ideal commercial space. “It’s what South Street used to be,” she insists. “It’s just independent folks doing their things.” She mentions Joe and a punk hairdresser across the street named Amy as essential pillars of this independent spirit. “We brought a lot of life to the neighborhood, and we all complement each other,” she says.
But Joe never mentions this community. Instead he speaks of neighborhood conflict, highlighting a particular confrontation that occurred soon after he opened his bookstore (in a lot across the street), in the late 1990s.
Russakoff’s fear of the Queen Village area must certainly be questioned. His store is only a block from the bohemian nightlife of South Street, one of Philadelphia’s most popular tourist attractions. And though he implies that shootings on this street are somewhat commonplace, the crime statistics don’t support these claims. According to the Philadelphia Police Department, there have been 11 reports of theft, two reports of burglary and one report of robbery in the area of Mostly Books during the past thirty days (as of December 7).
In contrast, 18 thefts and two robberies were reported in the Penn area within the same time window. Crime seems slightly more usual around the Penn campus, a relatively safe place to live, yet Joe seems oddly preoccupied with his safety in Queen Village. He would probably insist that most petty crime in his neighborhood goes unreported and unnoticed by police officers, while Penn is remarkably well–policed. But a simple walk around the Queen Village neighborhood speaks against Joe’s claims — it is full of attractive row houses, old but well–maintained, and bright independent storefronts. The area is classically South Philadelphian in appearance, its slight sense of dilapidation eclipsed by an old world charm.
So how does Russakoff keep Mostly Books afloat in such an inhospitable area? He subsists by attracting tourists, who flock to South Street and the stately nearby neighborhood of Society Hill, who find in Mostly Books a local–flavored forum for their literary yearnings. Joe also says that many of his customers are college students, which speaks to the allure of the store, as there are no universities nearby.
With this kind of attention from people in other neighborhoods (and other cities, too), it’s clear that Mostly Books has benefited from Philadelphia’s nature as a culturally–attuned, vibrant metropolis. Yet Joe does not feel that this interest is indicative of any city–wide literary scene. In fact, he looks slightly confused when confronted with the idea of a larger literary culture. “People like to read,” he stammers, and then he stops, thoughtfully considering his language once again. “But the real people who keep this type of place going are just regular people who are interested in stuff, they’re not part of a literary scene or anything.”
But Joe is selling this aspect short: he has developed a certain camaraderie with other used bookstore owners throughout the years, a group that has remained small and uniquely dedicated. And he seems to have established a similar relationship with some of his neighbors, though he neglects to mention it. The employees at Philly Aids Thrift, when asked by telephone about Russakoff, have only nice things to say. “Joe is sexy!” one yells, before a more serious female employee gets on the line. “[Joe] is somebody that folks know,” the woman claims. “He’s just a really good, warm, friendly guy. He’s a real fixture in the neighborhood and in the South Street district.”
And though Joe’s friendliness is evident, his discussion of other Philadelphia booksellers is tempered by a markedly wearied tone. “There’s not many,” he says, “not many can keep a store like this. A lot of people, when the reality hits them, would just prefer to get a job.” He pauses, and blinks. “I really don’t want to get a job.”
Russakoff seems, throughout his adult years, to have avoided the conventions of an ordinary work life. “I just get interested in things and I do different things for a while,” he explains. Before starting Mostly Books, he had “several short [bookstore ventures] that didn’t last very long.” Having absorbed his father’s interest in the business, Russakoff understood the process of opening a store, and he had access to a certain number of books to help him begin his collection.
Now, he gets most items from customers, who receive store credit in exchange, as well as from estate sales, which he calls a “trade secret.”
This “trade secret” has proved a goldmine for Russakoff, as he has been able to find rare documents and photos left absentmindedly in more mundane items such as books. In the past several years, Joe has found Revolution–era British newspapers, which contained reports on a war in the Colonies, as well as letters from an American girl who visited Nazi Germany and seemed, oddly enough, to have had a really good time. He laughs for a moment as he mentions this, but suddenly his tone becomes more serious. “I really wish I would have kept that,” he says longingly.
When he receives a truly valuable item, Russakoff usually doesn’t sell it in the store; he keeps it at home, in his own collection, or he sells it privately to one of several committed collectors he knows. Joe’s personal collections are minimal, he claims, though it seems again that he is just being modest. The major factor separating him from more serious collectors appears to be fairly innocuous, anyway: he neglects to keep a catalogue of his own possessions.
And although Russakoff seems most excited about his collection of vinyl and CDs, he also owns a lot of books. He describes his most prized works as “classic literary stuff,” and he notes that his favorite writers include 18th century giants Stendhal and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, as well as more modern authors, such as J.D. Salinger and Charles Bukowski. These leanings are well represented in Mostly Books where, Russakoff notes, literature and black history are the store’s strongest sections.
Yet his business’ most distinct offerings lie not on the shelves but in a metal bin positioned at the center of the former work yard. Here, Russakoff collects vintage photographs, plucked from family albums of people he never met. His self–proclaimed “contribution to humanity,” these photos are surreal and mesmerizing; looking at them seems a voyeuristic pursuit, as if there is something innately wrong with viewing the emotional intimacy of strangers.
Joe’s relationship with these photos seems equally complicated; he spends hours rifling through them, picking them out of assorted donation boxes and subsequently pricing them (the majority go for 79 cents). He finds their effect, throughout this process, to be “hypnotic.”
Yet these pictures are just a hint of genius among the piles of random objects Joe receives and could never use. As he describes it, “There’s a box of kitchen faucets, a box of cleaning supplies, a box of photographs and a box of boots.” When asked whether he discards most of these things, Joe says no, that he doesn’t throw out anything. “And that’s why people trust me,” he adds.
Earlier in our interview, Joe felt compelled to recount a story about a friend of his. The friend is older than he is, Joe says, and I silently question why he’s telling me this, but I let him go on. The friend, Joe continues, used to work at Mostly Books and he was paid to clean out the houses of the recently deceased. The friend complained, because he was supposed to dispose of things he didn’t want from the clean–out and he felt funny disposing of the wedding pictures of dead people. “You decide what part of their life is going to live on and what is going in the dumpster,” the friend told Joe. Joe finishes his story and stares straight ahead and laughs.
His laugh quiets down and he continues staring. Then he says that, “It’s ironic, see, because my friend just died, and now people are doing it to him.” I can’t think of what to say, so I don’t say anything.
It’s morbid, I understand, but it’s something greater than that, too.