Writers’ petition calls on university to save Penn Book Center, a ‘watering hole for the mind’

Throughout this week, Penn Book Center supporters are marching daily from the University City campus to the bookstore — just one block away.

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Penn Book Center, an independent book store on 34th Street in University City, is scheduled to close in May. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Penn Book Center, an independent book store on 34th Street in University City, is scheduled to close in May. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Chi-Ming Yang, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said she thinks browsing an indie bookstore is like a “mini-education.”

“It’s not unlike being in the stacks of a library where the physicality of the spine of the book moves you to pick it up and where your eyes kind of travel to other books that you might not have ever considered,” she said. “It opens up different vistas.”

So when Yang heard the news earlier this month that the independently run Penn Book Center would close at the end of May due to diminished sales, she felt a huge hole in her heart.

She was dismayed over the potential loss of the store she passes every day on her way to work, where she’s purchased textbooks for her classes and attended author readings and other events over her 13 years at Penn. She thought there had to be a solution.

“Instead of writing a letter of thank you to the bookstore owners for all of their service, I thought, it’s not over til it’s over,” Yang said.

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Yang created an online petition that calls for the university — which owns the 50-year-old bookstore’s building — to save Penn Book Center. It’s garnered more than 4,000 signatures so far.

University of Pennsylvania English professor Chi-ming Yang (left) leads a rally to save the Penn Book Center, which is slated to close by the end of May. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Throughout this week, Penn Book Center supporters are marching daily from the campus to the bookstore a block away. They’ve been gathering first at the broken button sculpture on campus, sharing why the bookstore is important to them and reading poetry from books they purchased at the store.

Those who make it to the store are then encouraged to purchase a new read from independent sellers.

Ashley Montague, one of the current owners of Penn Book Center and a Penn alumna, said she didn’t expect the outpouring of sadness and support.

“We thought we’d say goodbye, have a party, and that would be it. Now, I guess when I see the reaction, I do hope it can survive in some way,” she said.

Penn Book Center, an independent book store on 34th Street in University City, is scheduled to close in May. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

How can Penn help the bookstore survive?

While thinking of solutions, Yang learned about the business model of Labyrinth, the independent bookstore in the heart of Princeton University.

Princeton subsidizes student textbook sales at Labyrinth by 30% to encourage them to buy from the store.

But Yang and Montague are unsure if that exact model could work at Penn. A few years ago, the university opened an Amazon depot on campus where students can easily order and pick up books. That dramatically cut sales at Penn Book Center and pushed it to nix textbooks. And just down the street from Penn Book Center is a Barnes & Noble, which is the university’s official bookstore.

But Yang believes Penn Book Center provides something important that neither Amazon or a Barnes & Noble can.

Penn Book Center, an independent book store on 34th Street in University City, is scheduled to close in May. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“I do think that it is absolutely critical that there is a bookstore that carries titles that are hard to find, that are tailored toward scholars’ research areas, that also carries small independent press publications,” Yang said. “These are things you can’t find in large commercial bookstores.”

Yang sent a copy of the signed petition to a number of Penn administrators at Penn. She said the university provost’s office has requested a meeting with professors in the English department to discuss the store’s future.

She hopes the university — as the landlord of Penn Book Center —  will recognize the ways it can help the bookstore survive. Beyond the potential subsidized textbook sales, Yang also thought of solutions such as lowering the rent, supporting events that could generate revenue and collaborating with other campus entities.

“I think Penn is in a very privileged position of having a very healthy endowment,” she said. “Being one of the wealthiest universities in the country, those resources would be well spent to helping support this kind of business.”

Nick Millman (left) and other students and faculty at the University of Pennsylvania rally outside Van Pelt Library to save the Penn Book Center. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Students pitch in

Students at Penn are reeling over the potential loss too.

Ann Ho, an English literature graduate student, said she was surprised there isn’t more institutional support for the bookstore, especially based on the draw of author events she’s been to recently. Saying she hopes the university can come to a consensus, she cited Penn’s increasing development in West Philadelphia in general as a problem.

“The fact that a key crucial gathering place for intellectuals, culture seekers, readers from West Philly and University City is closing is very reflective of the type of university land gentrification model that has been such a problem in this area historically,” Ho said.

Avneet Randhawa (center), a second-year English student at the University of Pennsylvania, joins a rally of students and faculty trying to save the Penn Book Center, the campus’s only independent book store. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The rallies will be held each day this week at noon. Friday is dedicated to children’s literature, where parents, faculty and students will read from some of the children’s books.

The petition is close to reaching its goal of 5,000 and has hundreds of comments in support of Penn Book Center.

“The kinds of words that people use to describe their attachment to the bookstore are like ‘jewel,’ or ‘rare’ … or my favorite one is ‘a watering hole for the mind and soul,’” Yang said. “You don’t use that kind of language to describe any old retail interaction, so I think there’s something very special about the community that people find in the bookstore.”

A Penn representative did not respond to an email request for comment.

After hearing of the announced closing of University City’s independent book store Penn Book Center, WHYY Middle School Journalism students rushed to cover the community’s fight to keep the store afloat. Student reporters Kayla Huang, Claire Arnault, Henry Sappington and Nhamoi Lartey spoke with Penn Book Center owner Ashley Montague and Professor Chi-Ming Yang, who started a petition to help keep the store open, about the importance of the institution to the local community.

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