Street takes an inside look into the little intellectual bookstore nestled between Pike and Chi O at 3920 Spruce. Classical pianist and owner Debbie Sanford C’71 offers us tissues for our snowy sniffles and talks books, arts and crafts and Penn.
Debbie Sanford: It was 1971, and I was among the original people who founded it. We were students at Penn, and we had the idea to create a place that had a friendly, warm, and comfortable atmosphere. In the beginning, we even had different arts and craft classes and work spaces. Eventually, our interest in books was stronger.
Street: What types of arts and crafts did you do?
DS: We did weaving, silk–screening and pottery.
Street: How’d you come to be situated in an old West Philly house?
DS: We liked the idea of being in a house. The books fit into the architecture of the house. Originally the house was boarded up and not in good shape; we worked on renovating the house. It took several months to rehabilitate it. It was at a time when it was open for everyone, and there was a great sense of camaraderie. It had to do with getting the house ready together and making it ready for everyone. The idea was to make good books and significant books available to everyone.
Street: What’s it like to be a small, independent bookstore among book giants like Amazon and Barnes & Noble?
DS: In 1971, the accessibility of books wasn’t the same as it is today. There has been a real shift. But what we have is books in an environment where people can think and browse in this atmosphere. It’s about really looking and thinking. It’s about taking the time to discover.
Street: So, is this, like, a magic house?
DS: It is! There are a lot of people who come in, and there is a lot of ‘wow’ reactions and glowing eyes, and they are overcome by the architecture of the house.
Street: So the books and architecture function together?
DS: All the books are integrated to the architecture. There are books above the lintels—there are books above the cabinets that have a curved space-—it’s just a really pretty place. There’s a peacefulness about it. There’s a pretty archway with all the classics, philosophy, and poetry. You walk through the archway to get to the different sections of the store. It’s not in terms of numbered bookcases—it’s through the archway or the balcony doors. The children’s section is in a bay window that brings in all the light.
Street: What do you think of the Penn students who come in or walk by?
DS: I see a real interest in real books. They’re interested in reading to broaden their own knowledge and enjoyment. They come here for the atmosphere, for the different kinds of artwork, for the old binding of books. Certainly, many students are reading online or using Kindles, but it’s definitely not the generational divide that people may think. Our clientele is not just older people—there are a lot of current students and young alumni.
DS: People come back to our store years later with their husband or wife or children. They can point out exactly where in the architecture of the house they bought their course books. They remember it by the architecture—like on the shelf over the mantle on the fireplace. There’s a personal and significant quality that makes them remember it.
Street: So what’s it like being amongst Penn fraternities?
DS: It is a shock to people to see a bookstore among fraternities and the kind of bookstore we are–—having an aesthetic experience as you read. We play classical music on the radio! And when I was a student, Sigma Epsilon used to put their stereo speakers on the windows upstairs, and they would blast Beethoven, and you would hear it as you walked down the street. But I appreciated when Pike played Irish folklore music on St. Patrick’s Day last year.
Street: You must have interesting neighbors now!
DS: It’s an interesting block! We’re usually closed when the parties start. But people from the general neighborhood come to our store all the time. People from Penn’s transplant house and the hospital come for a real relief from their institutionalized environments, and they wander and just relax. When we have our books outside in warm weather, we draw people in passing-—not necessarily students—and remind them of the joys of reading.
Street: You even draw in squirrels too…
DS: Yes! We have short screens against the door, and sometimes they sit there and read the sign and they know not to leap over the screen.
Street: Your favorite Penn memory?
DS: When I first visited Penn, the original neighborhood right around campus was still intact. There were still beautiful historic houses between Spruce and Walnut. I have a wonderful vivid memory of a row of lampposts and the snow coming down. I also remember a beautiful magnolia tree where the soda and chips are at Fresh Grocer.