A week after the owners of the Penn Book Center announced its closure, more than 3,000 Philadelphia residents have signed a petition to save the bookstore. The petition, which was addressed to Penn President Amy Gutmann, called on the University to meet with the bookstore owners to develop a business model that would save the store.
On April 8, store owners Ashley Montague, who graduated from Penn in 1999 with a Ph.D. in English, and Michael Row, who received a Wharton Ph.D. in 2001, announced that Penn Book Center will shut its doors after nearly 60 years of business. Although they have taken steps to keep the store, which opened in 1962, from closing, the owners said these measures have not generated enough profit.
English professor Chi-ming Yang started the petition on April 10 after the owners made the announcement. In the petition, Yang called on the University to find a solution that keeps both the Penn Book Center and the Penn Bookstore in place to serve the school.
Yang also commended the President's Office for promoting the MacArthur Foundation's 100&Change competition and the President's Engagement and Innovation prizes to "reward students who 'make a substantial, sustainable impact in the world," but called on them to do the same for the Penn Book Center.
"Now is the time for the University to stand behind its commitments to sustainability and social innovation," Yang wrote.
The Penn Book Center regularly hosts poetry and book readings with the Institute of Contemporary Art and Penn’s Center for Africana Studies. In fall 2017, the Penn Book Center stopped selling course books and expanded its collection to the sale of "regular trade books." The decision was made because the Penn Book Center did not receive enough revenue from the course books, Montague said.
Yang said the petition received 2,000 signatures within the first 24 hours. Yang added that peer institutions such as Yale University, Columbia University, Princeton University, Harvard University, and Brown University have independent bookstores in the surrounding area. In the petition, Yang wrote that Princeton University subsidizes 30% of textbook sales at its independent bookstore to encourage students to buy books.
“It would be a travesty if a rich Ivy League school like Penn did not have a scholarly independent bookstore on its campus,” she said.
Montague said the petition has brought hope that Penn and the Penn Book Center can find a way to save the beloved bookstore. In the past, the University has been flexible with the Penn Book Center's lease, Montague said.
“Maybe something similar to what they do at Drexel where you have a co-op that you could get some Penn students from Wharton working on certain aspects of the business,” Montague said. “You could have English students who might be able to be book sellers."
Penn faculty and students said they hope the petition will garner the attention of Penn administrators and lead to the University helping to resolve bookstore's financial struggles.
College senior Derek Willie, who studies English, said he has little faith in the Penn administration because of its responses in the past to Fossil Free Penn, which called on the University to divest from fossil fuels, and Graduate Employees Together – University of Pennsylvania's campaign for unionization. Despite student advocacy, Penn has not divested from fossil fuels. Penn has also opposed the formation of a graduate student union.
“[The Penn Book Center] is contributing very much to the Penn community, but I don’t think the University values that,” Willie said. “They think of everything in terms of money and I think that given Penn’s attitude toward these kinds of things combined with the general business atmosphere in which small book stores are going out of business, I think that is what is allowing this to happen.”
Sixth-year English Ph.D. candidate Orchid Tierney said when she first arrived at Penn from New Zealand in August 2013, the Penn Book Center was the first bookstore she entered in the United States.
“I gravitated towards it as soon as I arrived in August and I was just shocked and delighted by the poetry collection that they had there, and I think I would go in each week just picking out books to buy and it became a place I could anchor myself as a Philadelphian,” Tierney said.
A few days before hearing about the Penn Book Center's closure, sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature Julia Dasbach attended a reading featuring world-renowned poet Ilya Kaminsky. She said she was heartbroken when she heard the news and that she had hoped her poetry collection would be featured at the bookstore after it is published this September.
"[Penn Book Center] supported me from the very beginning back when I was a nobody,” Dasbach said. The Penn Book Center hosted the launch of her chapbook of poems when she was a first-year graduate student.
Montague said she hopes Penn will help the owners come up with a creative solution to save the bookstore.
“[Row and I] are the owners I guess, but in a way we don’t really own it, and that’s why it’s so wrenching to say we’re going to close it, because we’re not the only people who have something invested in this,” Montague said. “I feel like it was kind of a legacy to us that we took on. It would be great for this to continue.”
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