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Fiction section at Big Blue Marble Books, Mt. Airy, Philadelphia. Indie bookstores are very neighborhood center. Photo: Big Blue Marble Books
Fiction section at Big Blue Marble Books, Mt. Airy, Philadelphia. Indie bookstores are very neighborhood center. Photo: Big Blue Marble Books

Your bookseller knows better than an algorithm

Next Saturday, April 28, is Independent Bookstore Day. AL DIA News spoke to indie bookstores in Philadelphia about their efforts to promote reading books among…

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If you want to buy a book, the easiest think is to search it on the Internet and buy it on Amazon or perhaps Barnes and Noble. One click, zero physical effort, zero chances that you will waste your time going to a local bookstore and finding out that they don’t have what you are looking for. But real bookstores, I mean, those traditional shops full of books, with that magical smell of paper and ink flying around, where people tend to talk quietly and walk softly, fearing that the floor will creak under his feet and disturb the silence inside; where the seller is happy to make you book recommendations and invites authors to present their books and meet their readers… Those places still have a big function on our community: to promote reading and passion for books into the community.

That is why a bunch of Philadelphia bookstores will be celebrating Independent Bookstore Day, next Saturday 28. This  one-day national party that takes place at indie bookstores across the country on the last Saturday in April was created to tell that independent bookstores are not just stores, but community centers and local anchors run by passionate readers, lively spaces that have many reasons to survive in this world of tweets and algorithms and pageless digital downloads.

“I think it’s a great occasion for raising awareness about and celebrating indie stores as a phenomenon”, says Ashley Montague, owner of Penn Book Center, an indie bookstore at 130 S. 34th Street, Philadelphia.

Montague is a passionate bookseller herself. What I really love about my job is the community - getting to know customers and talking to them about books. Because we do lots of events, we also have a chance to get to know the many writers in our area, and it's wonderful to know how much literary talent we have in the city”, she explained.  

Most customers at Penn Book Center work at Penn or Drexel, often academics, but Montague is permanently thinking how to attract new readers.

I think the best way to encourage reading books is to get books into the hands of young readers, something that's really important to us.  That's why we support a great local non-profit called Treehouse Books, dedicated to making sure all kids in Philadelphia have access to books at a young age”, Montague said.

Another challenge for Montague is how to attract more Latino readers. “We actually carry some Spanish titles, both fiction and children's books”, she said. Last they hosted an event with Toni Salas, acclaimed author from Barcelona, Spain, and next week, Philly's Poet Laureate Raquel Salas Rivera will be reading from their new work, Lo Terciario/ The Tertiary, written in response to the PROMESA bill passed in 2016 to restructure Puerto Rico's debt.

However, “ I think we can do more ”, she admitted, promising that she will keep thinking about what kinds of additional outreach they should undertake to attract more Latino readers into Penn Book Center.

For Elliott batTzedek, events coordinator at Big Blue Marble Bookstore, in Mt. Airy, what she loves best of her job is “helping someone find a book they will LOVE - a book that will resonate, astonish, delight, teach”, she said.  

At Big Blue Marble Bookstore, the majority of our customers are women, looking for great fiction or books to help understand the world and make change in it, batTzedek explained. “We also have a lot of parents and grandparents here to find books for kids. And plenty of our customers are also writers themselves”, she said.

However, the literary scene in Philly is in no way equal across the city – “wealthy neighborhoods have many choices, while poor neighborhoods have very little access to books or literary culture”, she pointed out.

Like most Independent Bookstores, Big Blue Marble is neighborhood-based, and in Mt.Airy has very few Latinx residents.

“Our customer base is Black, white, Jewish, LGBTQ. It would be amazing if someone opened a bookstore focused on Latinx culture in a Latino community, especially since books in Spanish are difficult to find and stock unless you have a steady business with foreign publishers. Marc Lamont Hill just opened Uncle Bobbie's Books and Coffee, focused on Black books and authors, in Germantown - that would be a good model for other "minority" communities”, she explained.

In addition, batTzedek pointed out that the big five US publishers have done nearly nothing to build Latinx authors, editors, and readers. “They will translate a few titles, especially in kids' books, but with no real effort to learn about the huge potential market of Latino communities. The only reason for this is prejudice, since the worldwide markets for Latino/Chicano/Spanish books is huge”, she said.

As Event coordinator at Big Blue Marble Books, bat Tzedek is looking forward to celebrate  Independent Bookstore Day next Saturday: “it is a way to draw attention to the fact that local indie bookstores are not only still here, but thriving and growing!”, she said, recalling last year Governor Wolf made a proclamation honoring Independent Bookstore Day all across Pennsylvania.

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