Best Independent Bookstores in Philadelphia

Philadelphia is often seen as the home of History, of Liberty. My God, it’s the birthplace of democracy! (Only if you’re willing to ignore Greece, of course.) And yet this quirky city, with its Georgian architecture, its finely-preserved streets, holds a bustling, modern intellectual scene. From the prog-rock concerts at the TLA on South Street to the intellectuals of West Philly in the 70’s, Philadelphia has always had a modern edge, one strongly tied to the arts.

As part of this edge, Philadelphia features a number of funky, independent bookstores. While we have our fair share of Barnes and Noble and Borders Books and Music (and a coffee and a scone and a free concert and…) mega-stores, the independents hold their ground bravely. In this article, I’ll be reviewing my three favorites: Giovanni’s Room (345 S 12th St, Philadelphia, PA 19107 215-923-2960), Joseph Fox Bookshop (1724 Sansom St, Philadelphia, PA 19103 215-567-7714), and Penn Book Center (130 S. 34th St, Philadelphia, PA 19104 215-222-7600).

Of these, Joseph Fox is the dignified elder, both in content and in fact. Begun in 1951, it is the most general of the bookstores covered in this article. Inside it is deceptively small, crammed with books at every turn – as all good bookstores should be. The books they carry tend to fall on the pricey end of things, but they’re worth it. All new, seemingly all interesting – this is a bookstore to be savored. One would not eat fine truffles by the handful; likewise Joseph Fox has become a treat, particularly for this poor student. They carry more new books than most places, but they are all excellent quality, and the staff is friendly and knowledgeable. Also of note – Joseph Fox sponsors many author signings every year, and collaborates with the Philadelphia Free Library to bring dozens of authors a year to the Philadelphia area.

Penn Book Center is another Old Standard, when it comes to Philadelphia’s indie stores. Located on Penn’s campus, it is a bare few blocks from a gigantic Barnes and Noble. It’s a combination student book store and general bookshop, though with a strong liberal, intellectual flair. Having lived just up the street from it for a year, I must confess that this is my favorite of the three. The shop is sunny and welcoming, with shelves upon shelves of books as soon as you enter. The staff is helpful and well-educated, and (a definite plus) friendly without being overbearing. You’re unlikely to find the latest bodice-ripper in the stacks, but the complete works of Umberto Eco and a book of essays by Clifford Geertz await you. Their prices range from affordable to sigh-inducing, but the selection of paperbacks leaves them a better option for the starving student than Joseph Fox.

Finally, that fabulous old queen of the gayberhood, Giovanni’s Room. A gay/lesbian and feminist bookstore begun in 1973, it’s firmly at home in a gorgeous, older area of Center City. It’s a surprisingly huge store, carrying a wide variety of books, from arty photography to pornography to scholarly volumes. The friendly staff are very knowledgeable and, unsurprisingly, open and accepting. The occasional sofa or soft chair gives one a good place to flop down and look over a particularly tempting book. The multiple floors house thousands of books, all on gay, lesbian, transgender or feminist topics. For travelers to the area, Giovanni’s room offers knowledgeable staff and a range of travel guides for the gay or lesbian tourist. Charming, chock-full, and with a full range of prices, Giovanni’s Room is truly unique, not just to Philadelphia, but to anywhere. I cannot say enough good things about this store! Its selection is somewhat limited, true – but that is its purpose, to give a voice to a marginalized population, and it does this with aplomb (and plenty of rainbow spangles)!

In truth, you can’t go wrong with any independent bookstore – there is always a new treasure to be found, the quirky, unique sense of going somewhere that could only be here . A gift that mega bookstores, for all their selection and bargains, will never have.

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