People’s Books & Culture, formerly known as the Penn Book Center, announced on June 5 that it will close its doors after nearly 60 years of business in West Philadelphia.
Co-owners Matthew Duques, an English professor at the University of North Alabama, and Bellonby, a writer, planned to begin renovations in mid-March, but were forced to shut down the store on March 20 after Pa. Governor Tom Wolf ordered all non-life-sustaining businesses to close due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Although they received base rent relief from Penn Real Estate for the past three months, Duques and Bellonby ultimately decided to close PBC due to the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic.
“We didn’t realize how bad it would get. We decided that we just couldn’t keep going with the store through the summer with the level of uncertainty that existed,” Duques said.
Duques said they tried to find alternatives to keep PBC open, and considered partnering with others in the community to co-own and manage the store, or moving to a new location with a lower rent. PBC is currently located at South 34th Street — a short walk away from Penn's Van Pelt Library and Hill College House.
After failing to find any viable alternatives, however, Duques said he and Bellonby realized the best thing would be for them to permanently close the store.
“We are sorry to hear of People’s Books and Culture’s decision to close their store. Their proposed business model under new ownership would have been a further enhancement to the Penn Community," Penn's Executive Director of Real Estate Ed Datz wrote in an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian.
The owners are now focusing on supporting members of the Philadelphia community's needs with the remaining money that was intended for renovations.
"We no longer have the resources to keep enduring losses, and we think the resources we do have are better directed toward social justice movements, particularly the fight against systemic, anti-Black racism," Duques and Bellonby wrote in the June 5 announcement.
Duques and Bellonby are considering giving their remaining inventory of books to the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill. Duques said they are also in the process of finding new homes for all of the store’s shelving units. They plan to donate half of the shelving to New Jersey and Philadelphia bookstores, and the rest to schools and libraries.
Since announcing PBC's closing, Duques said he and Bellonby have received over one hundred emails from the store's customers expressing their appreciation for keeping PBC open as long as they did.
The pair ran the store for eight months and hosted hundreds of in-store readings and book launches. Duques and Bellonby also raised staff wages by more than 60%, and contributed to local organizations, including the Philadelphia Emergency Writers Fund, according to the announcement.
In May 2019, PBC's previous owners announced their plan to close the store, then known as Penn Book Center, due to financial hardship.
The University, which owns the PBC building, allowed the store to remain open through August 2019 after protests and a petition that garnered over 5,000 signatures. That month, the store's previous owners sold it to Duques and Bellonby. The couple also co-founded The Fringe Foundation in 2014, a private 501(c)(3) nonprofit that supports community-led social justice organizations across the nation.
Before the pandemic, Duques and Bellonby had invested thousands of dollars and many hours into transforming the store into a "community-oriented haven" fit for sitting and socializing, according to their announcement. The new name of the store, People's Books & Culture, was inspired by a suggestion from a Penn graduate student.
Longtime supporter of PBC and rising College senior Avneet Randhawa said she was not surprised by this announcement.
“Stores like [PBC] are the first to suffer an economic loss,” Randhawa said. She said PBC provided an important intellectual space on Penn’s campus.
Duques said he and Bellonby are grateful to have had the support from their customers and from Penn and Drexel University faculty and administrators.
“We are going to miss a space that really cares about creative ideas, literary criticism, and cultural studies,” Duques said.