Penn Book Center, founded by Peter Nickles in 1962, will be closing at the end of May. The shop, located on the corner of 34th and Sansom streets, cites growth of online book sales as reasoning for the closing of the shop. Ashley Montague and Michael Row bought the store from Achilles and Olga Nickles in 2005. In an attempt to stay competitive, the store has recently made changes such as focusing on trade-sales, author readings and book groups as opposed to a previous focus on course sales, instead ceasing textbook sales completely. Despite the change in focus, an announcement revealing the closure was released to customers April 8.
The shifting environment for independent bookstores is certainly a reality many bookstore owners face. Amazon launched in 1995 and offered book prices that most bookstores couldn’t compete with. This ultimately lead to massive closures of stores. NPR’s “All Things Considered” notes that the more corporate bookstores, like Borders, were damaged more by Amazon than independent bookstores, which offer a different environment and experience than corporate bookstores or Amazon.
A guest speaker on “All Things Considered” and Harvard Business Professor Ryan Raffaelli notes a recent resurgence of independent bookstores beginning in 2009 have increased by 40 percent. “Indies represent this high experience, a chance for the consumer to engage on a set of very personal dimensions, versus Amazon, which is really about, can I just get something quickly at the cheapest price?” Raffaelli adds. This theory may explain why there’s been a resurgence in independent bookstores opening in recent years.
Keep in mind, regardless of the growth of independent bookstores, keeping them open is a different challenge. Paddy Hirsh on “All Things Considered” adds that margins on books are “razor thin,” meaning that the community surrounding an independent bookstore must embrace the shop enthusiastically and consistently. Penn Book Center’s historical presence shapes both the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University’s campuses. Between its convenient location in proximity to Drexel’s campus and its diverse book collection which appeals to students, researchers and professors, the Penn Book Center adds to the intellectual community as well as the academic culture of University City campuses.
Clearly, Penn Book Center’s location is in proximity to researchers, professors and students in University City who embrace academia, and it could be speculated that the lack of funds might be due to growing pains with the recent changes in focus. Some faculty at Penn certainly think the center is worth fighting for. A petition to the University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann was started by a group of Penn faculty members. The petition urges the University to promote initiatives to stand behind its commitments to sustainability and social innovation. It also suggests that the university create a strategy with the Penn Book Center in order for it to remain open, adding that other institutions, such as Princeton University, subsidize textbook sales 30 percent off list price to encourage students to buy books at their independent bookstores.
As of now, it appears that the Penn Book Center still has plans to close its doors at the end of May. The owners expect to mark down remaining inventory in the Penn Book Center beginning at the end of April and are continuing to hold events in the store until they officially close. Upcoming events include reading showcases, student writing highlights, discussion, visiting authors and more. Themes on the events include race, class, gender, politics, historic writings and much more. The petition, which can be found on Change.org, grips to hope for the Penn Book Center, crediting it for its 57 years of business and for being the “heart of literary and academic culture of Penn’s campus since it was founded.” The shifting role for independent bookstores remains unclear. Hopefully University City won’t have to see the beloved Penn Book Center close its doors at the end of next month.