Mom and pop shops stand strong on campus
Despite the threat of larger chains, small store owners are confident in their specialties
November 8, 2011, 12:41 am·
Sophia Ciocca | DP
In the shadow of corporate establishments on campus stands a cluster of mom and pop shops, some of which have called Penn home since the 1960s. Well-rooted in Penn’s community, they continue to flourish even in the face of tough economic times by offering not only specialized products, but also specialized knowledge.
Unlike chains that crowd campus, House of Our Own, The Last Word Bookshop, Penn Book Center, The Marvelous and Avril 50 all have a raison-d’etre beyond just seeking profits. Each store was created by a character with a unique vision.
At House of Our Own, a 40-year-old venture founded and run by 1971 College of General Studies graduate Debbie Sanford, business was secondary to Sanford’s dream. This House — as the name conveys — was born to foster a sense of “welcom[e] and inclusivity” as a quasi-community center in a spirited time when the “youth culture” was pervasive, Sanford said. Sanford, a former pianist of calm and thoughtful demeanor, appeared at home within her sea of novels.
She sees a “huge resurgence” of a similar youth mentality today, as well as a rise in students coming “to browse books in a thoughtful way,” contrary to the “popular perception that young people are flocking to electronic devices.”
Sanford holds that “an environment of books allows thoughts to emerge in an unhurried way,” and that while electronic books are competition, there is no substitute to relaxing and thinking, “book in hand.”
House of Our Own is a joint new-and-used bookstore whose inventory lines every inch of a large house located at 3920 Spruce St., in the midst of a row of fraternities and sororities.
Sanford enjoys “developing relationships” with interesting people who also happen to be customers in need of books. If the House were “trying to be highly profitable, we would be doing other things,” she added. “I can sell a $40 book, but that wouldn’t make me happy.”
Sanford takes pride in “her diverse and deep collection of good books in significant fields” and maintains that there are no species of “non-books” behind her doors.
Like Sanford, David Hancock, the trade book manager at the Penn Book Center, claims that there is no “ephemera” in his stock.
The Center — located at 34th and Sansom streets — has been a Penn establishment since the 1960s and is specifically an “academically oriented, scholarly bookstore,” Hancock said. When purchasing books at the Penn Book Center, you are guided by employees who are “knowledgeable and passionate” about the books they carry, which reflect their “tastes and interests.” Penn Book Center’s strong relationship with certain professors at Penn is invaluable, as “the course books keep us in business.”
Some professors also direct students to House of Our Own and The Last Word to pick up used copies of classic novels for larger lectures.
The Last Word, an entirely used bookstore at 220 S. 40th St. run by Penn graduate Larry Maltz — whose mission is to host “the best bookstore in the country” — has called Penn home for the past 10 years.
When asked about the store’s name, Maltz produced a small black box. Within the box lay a miniscule gauge with “Last Word” inscribed upon its face. Maltz doesn’t understand the purpose of this instrument — a gift from his grandfather — but it named the store, and he was excited to share his story with customers.
Maltz expects that the downturn in the economy will not hurt his store too much because as a used bookstore, already budget-priced, it is somewhat “recession proof.” His store, he added, “adds a little flavor and adventure to the stroll down 40th Street.”
Maltz, a man with a burgeoning smile, spends his days standing attentively behind a central desk while the emerald eyes of the bookstore’s cat, Lester, scan from a perch within the stacks.
While the independent bookstores on campus are quite visible on a student’s path to and from class, The Marvelous record store and Avril 50 are less conspicuous.
Just as the Penn Book Center is run by a crew of “book nerds,” Dave Koch, manager of The Marvelous, explained that he is “paid to be a [music] nerd.” The store, which sells both common and exceptionally rare records, supplements its income with the sale of musical instruments. Each of these independent stores depends on reliable sales of certain products to be able to have an idealistic, rather than a corporate, focus.
Koch tries to make the store’s atmosphere “as weird as possible” because “within the [Penn] bubble, there’s not much culture.”
With principles similar to those of the owners of House of Our Own, Koch explained that “no one opens a record store with the intention of turning a profit,” and that none of the employees are “business people” — they simply share a deep appreciation for music.
Like leafing through a book, Koch treasures the tangibility of a record, eager to divulge the intricacies behind its workings as vibrations of “crazy jazz” engulf the shop.
Avril 50, the “oldest” store on Sansom Street at 27 years, invites customers to experience something entirely different — an “oasis,” as owner John Shahidi described it.
A specialty store of vast variety, Shahidi stressed that “nowhere else will you find a store like this one” with the combination and quality of goods that he stocks. From obscure, foreign magazines and newspapers to chocolates, and from humorous postcards to loose teas, Shahidi’s products are chosen “one by one” with expert attentiveness to taste.
As a coffee lover, Shahidi set out to carry the biggest coffee selection in Philadelphia and features roasts from Zimbabwe, Sumatra Brazil and his own special blend that took him two years to bring to fruition.
Like his fellow mom and pop owners, Shahidi wants his customers to “come here to relax, and then go out and face the elements.”
College senior John Katz, who frequents Avril 50, appreciates the store’s “quality” products adding, “John’s a nice dude.”
As independent stores without the backing of a corporation, Shahidi explained, “It’s been harder, especially for little guys like me.” With limited budgets, most mom and pops like House of Our Own, The Marvelous and Avril 50 rely on word of mouth advertising and the support of their community.
While all stores cater to students, Avril 50 serves out-of-towners searching for specific magazines, and The Marvelous regularly sells records to West Philadelphia inhabitants, for instance.
Technology appears to be the most ominous threat to the success of some of these businesses. While “vinyl sales go up every year” and tapes are making a comeback, business for The Marvelous is still rocky because of the availability of records at lower prices on the internet, explained Koch. Maltz laments that students spend so much time “staring at screens” instead of novels, and Sanford remembers how the rise of Amazon.com and similar sites affected business.
Still, the shop owners have faith in their products. Sanford said the House will continue as it is “with a total emphasis on books.”
Maltz shares the sentiment.
“Books have been around for 500 years, and they’re not going anywhere.”