Tag Archives: Free Library of Philadelphia

Jeff VanderMeer at FLP

Area X penetrated Philadelphia on the evening of Thursday, September 25. Author Jeff VanderMeer ushered in a night of the uncanny at the Free Library of Philadelphia, abetted by Geekadelphia, and an owl (the latter provided courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences).

The slideshow included photographs taken by VanderMeer, as well as promotional and fan art.

The slideshow included photographs taken by VanderMeer, as well as promotional and fan art.

I’ve gushed at length about VanderMeer’s recent novels, Annihilation and Authority, going to far as to collect links related to the former. (As of this writing, I’m one-third of the way through the last novel in the trilogy, Acceptance.) I was pleased to have the opportunity to hear VanderMeer speak in person. (And he signed my copy of Annihilation.)

VanderMeer did a short reading from Acceptance, from a portion I have not yet read. I considered bumrushing the podium and knocking the book from his hands, but decided that would be impolite. Fortunately, he read a few pages that weren’t too spoilery (confirmed for me by a friend who was also in attendance). VanderMeer’s tone and the pacing of his speech was flat, without inflection, hypnotic. Combined with his style, heavy with clauses, it reminded me of the surge and retreat of surf beating upon a shore. Hearing VanderMeer read from Acceptance was helpful for me; I’ve been having difficulty “getting into” this last book, and his reading made his style more accessible to me.

Chris Urie and VanderMeer discussed the novels.

Chris Urie and VanderMeer discussed the novels.

VanderMeer noted that the Southern Reach trilogy is his second attempt to write about Florida. He first wrote about the “Sebring Squid Festival,” a faux-journalistic account of a fictional festival set in a real Florida town. This story caused him no end of headaches: Packages of dried squid sent to him in the mail; notes from angry marine biologists; an offer from a BBC representative to talk about the squid for a documentary; and a voicemail from a fisherman who claimed to have caught one of the squid in Louisiana. After that call, unsure how the fisherman got his number, and given that the squid he describes is not real, VanderMeer decided to pursue a more fantastical approach.

VanderMeer discussed the novels at length with a representative from Geekadelphia. It’s clear that nature, and humanity’s relationship to it, is one of VanderMeer’s concerns. He lamented the state of environmental education (in the United States), noting that American children are “developmentally challenged” in regards to their connection with nature. He pointed to his essay “Bear versus Texting Man: Our Spectacular Disconnection,” in which no publisher showed any interest; it was “too depressing.” Much of the novels were informed by his hikes throughout northern Florida, where he encountered the boar (noted in Annihilation). A slideshow running in the background included pictures VanderMeer took during his hikes.

Arizona & I.

Arizona & I.

One of the major themes of the novels is the encounter of individuals with institutions, and the conflict that ensues, “Lord of the Flies with middle management,” he called it. VanderMeer, in his previous work, which he can’t discuss (creepy), actually found a dead mouse and dead plant in a desk drawer, wondering if they were left as some kind of message. Likewise, the smashed mosquito that Control encounters in Authority was drawn from VanderMeer’s own experiences. So, too, was the character of Whitby. One of VanderMeer’s colleagues would, from time to time, approach him and ask, “Do you want to see a strange room?” His answer was always “no,” both because he wanted to continue to be employed, but also because his “writer’s brain” didn’t want to know what was in the room–he wanted to fill it in later. Edit: VanderMeer memorably described the character Whitby as “the Smeagol of the Southern Reach.”

She was spooked, and kept trying to fly away, so I was a *little* nervous.

She was spooked, and kept trying to fly away, so I was a *little* nervous.

Afterwards, there was a question and answer period with the audience. We then headed upstairs to get pictures with the owl! Why the owl, you might wonder. Its presence was informed by the character of the Biologist (“Ghost Bird”), who has an attachment to the creature. Given the novels’ focus on nature, it made sense, once it was suggested, to have the owl (“Arizona”) present. (FYI: Barn owls can live up to 15 years.)

A good evening with an author who is having great success this year.

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The Next Page

Philadelphia is not a literary town.

You might think that Philly would have more of a book culture. The region teems with universities. The town is halfway between NYC and DC. And it’s a hub of academic publishing, hosting Penn Press, Taylor & Francis, Elsevier and Thomson Reuters, among other publishers.

Despite all that, Philly is a sports town, a beer town, but it is not a book town. Bookstores are rare and precious things, hidden away like Ben Franklin’s gold. They say that the man who finds Ben Franklin’s gold will live forever. They didn’t realize that women are treasure hunters, too.

In any case, I greeted with glee the opening several years ago of The Next Page, sister store to the Friends of the Free Library’s Book Corner.

The Next Page facade.

The Next Page facade.

Location and Hours

The Next Page can be found on a lonely stretch of Chestnut Street, tucked away on the 700 block between Jeweler’s Row and Graduate Hospital, just west of Old City and Independence Mall. Sadly, there’s little else in the neighborhood to recommend it to visitors aside from gum stains on the sidewalks, discarded cigarette butts and heavy traffic. Oh, and there’s a Cosi.

The hours are 10am to 6pm, Monday through Saturday. You probably wouldn’t want to visit the store any later than 6, anyway. It’s not a dangerous neighborhood, but it’s a little spooky when normal working hours are over and office workers flee Center City for the safety of the suburbs. Besides, you don’t really have any reason to be out at night unless you’re looking for Franklin’s gold.

Prices

I’m not sure if it’s the rent or the expectation that things should be higher priced in Center City, but pricing at The Next Page isn’t as consistent as it is at Book Corner (where there is a $1/$2/$3 flat rate for mass market paperbacks, trade paperbacks and hardcovers, respectively). Expect prices at The Next page to range from $3 to just over $10, with the average price hovering around $6-$8.

Staring down the center aisle toward the exit.

Staring down the center aisle toward the exit.

I visited the store with a friend once and remarked that I thought the books were overpriced. The clerks were eavesdropping on our conversation. I didn’t quite hear what they said to one another, but I caught, “I don’t think they’re overpriced,” and, “it benefits the library.”

Far be it from me to suggest to a merchant what they should charge their customers, but, in my opinion, $6 for a used paperback is overpriced. This is especially true of books that were popular just a few years ago and thus of which there is now a surfeit of copies, for instance In the Woods.

I often overhear the clerks discussing the pricing of books, which I believe they sell online, too, and I get the impression that they expect The Next Page to be the Friends’ cash cow. I wonder if the prices The Next Page charges reflect the “market value” of the used books they’re selling, or if they might raise more money for the library with lower prices that would result in more moved product. You’re welcome for my brilliant financial analysis.

Selection

Content is king at The Next Page!

Fiction comprises about a third of the store’s space, but is extensive, including literature, science fiction and fantasy, horror, and an especially large mystery/thriller section. You’ll find a wider range of authors and titles here than you will at Book Corner, and you’re more likely to find recently published books. I snagged a copy of The Golem and the Jinni (2013) for $8 in June. Good book, good price.

The fiction section.

The fiction section.

Nonfiction, too, is well-represented. There’s a large history section, as well as sociology, psychology, business and so on. Again, you’ll often find newer, or “new-ish,” titles. I read a lot of religious history and have had great success finding books by biblical scholar Bart Ehrman.

The selection rotates more frequently here than it does at Book Corner. That’s due in part, I think, to the fact that the Friends siphon from Book Corner the titles that are newer or in better condition to sell at The Next Page.

Character

The Next Page is a different beast from Book Corner. The latter is what I think of as a “traditional” used bookstore: a little dark, a little dusty, crates on the floor and an aging hippie moving stacks of yellowed books from one corner to another, like Sisyphus in Hell.

"The dank, Moe, the dank!"

“The dank, Moe, the dank!”

The Next Page is not like that. To quote Hemingway, it is a clean, well lighted place, although you won’t feel the need to drink yourself into a stupor and lament your lost youth. It’s a more formal space for a different neighborhood. There’s art on the walls that customers can by: what appear to me to be nineteenth century naturalistic prints. There’s usually some inoffensive music playing, although I was subjected to some Enya yesterday and still don’t feel clean. “Orinoco Flow”…shudder.

The sci-fi and thriller section.

The sci-fi and thriller section.

Foot traffic is minimal. A surprisingly large number of customers stop in to ask if the store has this or that title in stock, suggesting that folks who work in Center City are unfamiliar with the concept of used bookstores. The clerks endure questions such as these with good humor, going so far as to look titles up on Amazon. Bully for them. Sometimes ya just wanna smack a man who asks for “that book, you know, the one with the blue cover.”

Conclusion

I complain about The Next Page the way an old man complains about his wife: I’m curmudgeonly and carry the murderous rage that I imagine builds up over 40 years of marriage, but I’m still with her. She’s my gal.

The prices seem high to me, but it doesn’t keep me away. I don’t buy something every time I visit, but I always seem to see at least one or two titles that I’d like to get. And I do still buy from The Next Page with some regularity.

There aren’t a lot of options in Philly. This is one of the better ones.

A Visit to the Book Corner

The first time I visited Book Corner, in 2008, I waited at the counter for several minutes as three employees stared slack-jawed at a laptop. I had to pee, pretty badly, really, so I persevered. “Do you have a restroom I might use?” I asked. The employee who was seated barely looked my way before brushing me off with a “no.” She didn’t even direct me to the Parkway Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP), to which Book Corner is immediately adjacent, at which restrooms are plentiful and the customer service makes even the poorest man feel like a king. I stomped away, grumbling that I would never return.

Several years and countless visits later, my library consists disproportionately of books acquired at Book Corner.

Book Corner facade.

Book Corner facade.

Location and Hours

Book Corner is located at 311 N. 20th Street, a location that means nothing to most people. If you need a landmark, think of it as the little building behind the central branch of the FLP, which is on the Parkway. It’s accessible by both foot and bus, but good luck finding parking if you decide to drive. It’s not hard to find: There’s a giant sign that says “BOOK CORNER.” It’s open daily from 10am to 6pm.

The neighborhood in which Book Corner is situated is undergoing the first stages of gentrification. There’s a Starbucks a block away and a Whole Foods across the street. The Barnes Museum, now adjacent to the library building, relocated from the suburbs in 2012. Housing is becoming expensive; The Granary is one block north of the library and is demonstrative of the changing tenor of the Art Museum and Fairmount districts.

Prices

You’re in luck, book hoarder. Book Corner adheres to a strict and straightforward pricing policy:

  • Mass market paperbacks, $1
  • Paperbacks, $2
  • Hardbacks, $3

You will not find lower used book prices anywhere in Philly.

SWOON!

SWOON!

Book Corner also holds periodic sales during which they drop prices and vomit forth their hoarded tomes onto the sidewalks. In fact, there’s one coming up on October 18 and 19. Pack a tote. Or two.

October 18 and 19.

October 18 and 19.

Remember: Book Corner is run by the Friends of the Free Library. Any profits go to support FLP, which faces chronic budget difficulties. Do the FLP a solid and buy somethin’.

Selection

Book Corner’s biggest weakness is its selection. As a dumping ground for unwanted books, the store ends up with all manner of titles that no one wants. Consider this:

Gorbachev did happen. He really did.

Gorbachev did happen. He really did.

Just to the right of old Gorby, there, you’ll see The Soviet Dictatorship. I didn’t crack it open, but I suspect that The Soviet Dictatorship was published in the 70s at the most recent. The country to which it refers hasn’t existed for over 20 years. It’s the same with much of the material in the “Russia” section.

Book Corner needs a good weeding. The store should consider ridding itself of the many, many outdated books on its shelves that no one will ever buy. They not only take up real estate that might be better filled with more current material, but they also make the entire establishment seem dated. The store has a surfeit of material; surely it could remove the older titles in favor of newer ones, which often end up in USPS crates on the floor.

Is this an authorized use of USPS property, HMM?

Is this an authorized use of USPS property, HMM?

So a lot of books sit…and sit…and sit. Book Corner has an aura of permanence about it. Still, there is a good flow of new material into the store. Two years ago I found Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy for two bucks a pop. Not bad.

And there are A LOT of books to look at. A LOT.

This is only part of the fiction section.

This is only part of the fiction section.

This is a sampling of the nonfiction, which contains sections on African-Americans, Native Americans, and LGBT.

This is a sampling of the nonfiction, which contains sections on African-Americans, Native Americans, and LGBT.

There's a nice table in the middle of it all on which the staff rotates features.

There’s a nice table in the middle of it all on which the staff rotates features.

If you’re like me, you’ll make a beeline for the science fiction and fantasy section (ELBOWS OUT), which, sadly, is a little sparse.

What, no PKD?

What, no PKD?

Book Corner’s got you covered if you’re a Twilight fan, though.

Shudder.

Shudder.

Of course, part of the fun in visiting a used bookstore is the joy of the unexpected discovery. Book Corner won’t disappoint you. You’ll definitely find at least one of those books you’ve been hunting for over the years.

On a sad note, the store seems to ship the “good” titles over to the Next Page, their Center City store, at which they charge higher prices.

Character

Book Corner isn’t one of those little indie bookstores with a coffee shop and some dude playing acoustic guitar. You don’t don’t visit Book Corner for the ambiance. (Does anyone visit Philadelphia for the ambiance?) This place is functional.

Yes, I am grieving.

Yes, I am grieving.

The staff has been making improvements over the past few years, but Book Corner utilitarian, with a climate that’s insufficiently cool in the summer and stuffy in the winter. The floors creak. The windows are dirty. The hobos are surly and will begrudge you the books they use to feed the fires over which they cook their beans. Just kidding! You can see light through the windows.

Decor aside, Book Corner is spacious and welcoming. The quality of customer service has improved since my first visit: Just today I was welcomed with a smile and a “Hello, how are you?” As someone with a social phobia, I nearly shrieked in terror, but I appreciated the politeness nonetheless.

Book Corner recently acquired an orphaned cat that they’ve named “Chaucer.” He’s become the store’s mascot. I couldn’t get a picture of the little rascal. As a cat, he was determined to thwart me in whatever I do. Still, he’s a friendly little guy, and you’ll sometimes find him curled up on a pile of books. Don’t be afraid to pet him. I suspect he moonlights as a mouser.

Conclusion

You should visit Book Corner at least once to get a sense of it yourself. Philly doesn’t have a lot of used bookstores, and Book Corner’s cheap and accessible. Besides, any money you spend will benefit FLP. And if you’re a reader, I know you wanna pet that cat.