‘Making Worlds’ with books: Inside West Philly’s newest indie lit shop

This Valentine’s Day, it’ll open as the newest addition to Philadelphia’s lately growing collection of independent bookstores.

From left, Malav Kanuga, Lucy Duncan, Sy Biswas and Nicki Kattoura are four of five members of the Making Worlds collective. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

From left, Malav Kanuga, Lucy Duncan, Sy Biswas and Nicki Kattoura are four of five members of the Making Worlds collective. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it door hides in plain sight at 210 S. 45th Street in West Philadelphia.

Set slightly back along the busy commercial block between Walnut and Locust, hemmed in by a local thrift shop and an Argentinian restaurant, and crowded on either side by white-framed display windows, the door is easy to overlook.

But behind it, activity hums. Volunteers sweep dust from patterned floor tiles, adjust chairs, push bookshelves back against bright blue walls.

The space is called Making Worlds. It’s collectively owned and operated. And this Valentine’s Day, it’ll open as the newest addition to Philadelphia’s lately growing collection of independent bookstores.

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The shop began as the “accidental” brainchild of four West Philly community organizers, now the members of the Making Worlds collective, said Malav Kanuga, one of the four.

Kanuga was searching for warehouse space to support his publishing house, Common Notions, last year when Sy Biswas, a friend, expressed interest in storing books there as well — and suggested using the space to host the abolitionist salons that they and their partner Lucy Duncan were holding monthly. The three began to discuss the possibility of opening a space where they could store work, sell books and hold events simultaneously.

When they found the space on 45th, a storefront once part of adjacent Second Mile, it “ignited our imagination,” said Duncan, and the collective was born.

Books floor-to-ceiling will line one wall of the petite shop. Across from it, a children’s book section. The collective is setting up a pay-as-you-wish cafe with window seating in a corner. The shop will be equipped with speakers and a projector for gatherings and screenings.

“Because of our organizing background, we always wanted to have a strong component of events and authors and trainings,” Biswas said.

The shop will open at a time of change in the neighborhood. Making Worlds sits in the desirable Penn Alexander catchment within gentrifying Spruce Hill, one of 14 Philadelphia neighborhoods that lost its Black majority over the last two decades, according to a 2016 Pew Charitable Trusts study. Property values in the area have soared in the past few years.

210 S. 45th Street in West Philadelphia will be the Making Worlds collective, a book store, cafe and event space. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

‘A world where many worlds fit’

Making Worlds aspires to be more than a place to buy books and see authors.

Although none of the collective’s founding members are from Philadelphia originally, they envision the book store as a community-grounded space for West Philadelphia to come together. To help them realize that goal, they have invited six new members who are native and long-term community residents to join the collective. When they speak about that future collective, they include collaborator Mike Africa Jr., the son of Mike and Debbie Africa, members of the MOVE 9. Africa’s name is also signed on the GoFundMe letter requesting support for Making Worlds’ construction and opening.

“We’re really clear that we want a space that centers people of color, centers people whose voices aren’t often centered, and so we’re thinking about that very, very intentionally as we open the space,” said Duncan, who moved to West Philadelphia from Omaha two decades ago.

The fourth member of the collective, Nicki Kattoura, who grew up in Germany and moved to Philadelphia last September, describes the space as an “opportunity.”

“I think we often forget how important physical space is in building movements, and I think when we provide that space, we’re already moving one step forward,” he said.

The bookstore’s name doubles as a kind of mission statement. It’s taken from the Zapatista movement’s commitment to build “[un mundo] donde quepan muchos mundos” — “a world where many worlds fit.”

The building of those worlds has already begun. In the past few months, friends and neighbors have designed graphics, painted walls, built shelves, helped with interior demolition and reconstruction and jumped readily into every event the collective has hosted, from political conversations to dance parties.

Organizational partners and connections beyond the neighborhood have helped, as well. The group cites support from the Wooden Shoe, a collectively owned book shop on South Street, the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance and the city’s Department of Commerce.

The fundraiser’s primary donors listed online are private organizations or individuals, many of them based outside of Philadelphia.

“We’ve seen an enormous amount of community support and interest in the space,” said Kanuga, adding, “It’s been incredible… there’s this really wide community that has literally helped move and shape this space.”

The bookshop’s final inspection is scheduled for this week. Collective members plan to open the space officially the evening of Feb. 14 — with what they call an “anti-Valentine’s day community revolutionary love party.”

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