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Browse Local: A guide to Philadelphia's best used bookstores

Used Bookstore Guide

There are few things as sweet as a good used bookstore binge. Fortunately, addicts can still find a tempting array of literary delights in Philadelphia. 

The city was once home to 26 independent bookstores in Center City alone, but years of Borders, Amazon, ebooks and rising downtown rents have taken their toll. There are still a few excellent shops -- the beautifully manicured Joseph Fox (1724 Sansom Street) or Bella Vista's snug Headhouse Books (619 2nd Street) -- but the majority of the remaining establishments largely deal in used merchandise. Philadelphia's used bookstores offer a kind of musty sanctum, at least for those with the appropriate temperament. I can state this with some confidence as I've wasted many afternoons and more of my discretionary income than anyone would deem wise on establishments of this very nature. 

Port Richmond Books
3037 Richmond Street

Situated in an old movie theater, Port Richmond Books is utterly unique. Walk past the well-stocked mystery section, teetering piles of Tolkien, and owner Greg Gillespie's very informal office stuffed with treasures (including a rare copy of Tin Tin's adventures in the Soviet Union), to the back.

The immense room where audiences used to watch Laurel and Hardy is now filled with books of every description, with space for occasional readings and signings, and plenty of room leftover for the full-height basketball hoop. When Gillespie shoots, the ball bounces off the hoop and rolls, toppling a couple empty wine bottles. 

Favorite find: Gillespie has managed to accumulate some scraps from the personal library of the recently deceased literary critic Paul Fussell. While the copy of Silver Poets of the Sixteenth Century isn't likely to be read anytime soon -- I don't know Sir Thomas Wyatt from Sir John Davies -- the book features the great man's signature on the first page and his notes in the margins. 

Book Haven
2202 Fairmount Avenue

Book Haven is the platonic ideal of a used bookstore. Located in a row house on the southwestern corner of Eastern State Penitentiary in the shadow of an exceptionally leafy tree, the deceptively small storefront hides a large space (and a pretty little garden in the back). The second story houses non-fiction, everything from "Witchcraft" to "Chinese Philosophy," and a few elegant prints of Philadelphia's City Hall and the University of Pennsylvania's old library (not the current modernist monstrosity). 

But fiction is what sets Book Haven apart. Almost every author imaginable can be found in abundance on their shelves. The English novelist Kingsley Amis, a favorite of mine, is hard to find in American bookstores for the very sensible reason that he's never been all that popular over here. He occupies a whole shelf at Book Haven. That's in addition to works by Muriel Spark, George MacDonald Fraser and James Baldwin -- a keen sense of self-preservation is all that prevented me from blowing a month's income.  

Favorite find: A gorgeous old copy of G.K. Chesterton's The Flying Inn, the story of a pub owner's attempts to evade prohibition while rolling around the English countryside in the company of a hefty cask of rum and a huge wheel of cheese.
The Last Word Bookhops
220 40th Street

Situated on the western edge of Penn's campus, The Last Word Bookshop stays open later than any other bookstore in the city (10 a.m. to 10 p.m.). It's ideal for the tipsy, late-night book browser, desperate to escape heaving crowds of college students. Last Word even stocks that most essential of used bookstore accouterment: an adorable cat basking in the window. (The overlap between cat people and used bookstore people is well-documented; Seattle's Twice Told Tales has perfected the nexus.) The Last Word doesn't specialize. They have a good selection of everything from fantasy novels to French history. 

Favorite find: Stella Gibbon's Cold Comfort Farm. For anyone who has ever had to suffer through a D.H. Lawrence or Thomas Hardy tome, this glorious send-up of rural English novels is the antidote. 

A House of Our Own
3920 Spruce Street

A House of Our Own is located in a stately Victorian row home on Spruce Street in West Philly. Thanks to its student-adjacent location, it does a brisk trade in textbooks during the school year. But the shop has much more to offer. The owners, Debbie Sanford and Greg Schirn, have amassed a collection sure to ensnare non-fiction readers. The downstairs is dominated by an eclectic selection of labor, leftist, urban and international histories (and not just of European nations either).

Books line the staircase leading upstairs to the fiction section. It's quite good, though their genre selection is slim (this is not the place to find novels featuring spies and spacemen). The only downside is the frat a few houses down. On fine spring days, a pulsing rhythm can be heard through the walls, potentially throwing off the equilibrium of the more delicate members of the browsing classes. 

Best find: Dishing It Out: Waitresses and Their Unions in the Twentieth Century by Dorothy Sue Cobble is the history of a profession that few people realize was ever unionized. There's an amazing picture of four grinning waitresses occupying a Detroit Woolworth's in 1937 in the midst of a sit-down strike for a 40-hour work week. 

1931 Chestnut Street

Whodunit serves as a counter-balance to A House of Our Own's lack of genre fiction. It opened in 1977 when Center City was still a sundown town where it was hard to find a Snickers bar after 5 p.m. At the time it dealt almost exclusively in mystery novels (an honorable calling), but today owner Art Bourgeau has expanded his enterprise to embrace every genre. (That said, novels that open with shots ringing out in the dark night still form the bulk of the supply.) 

Favorite find: Whodunit has the most P.G. Wodehouse novels I've ever seen in one place. 

Molly's Books & Records
1010 S. 9th Street

Molly's Books & Records is a one of the few new used bookstores to (re)open in recent years. It is located in the middle of the Italian Market and sells vinyl too. Despite its relatively small storefront, it sports a surprisingly robust selection, including a cluster of pulpy paperbacks at the front of the store that are always fun to sort through. 

Favorite find: A collection of Saki stories featuring a ferocious wolf, snarling in anger (or perhaps hunger) in the foreground, while a group of British aristocrats cower in the shadows. Think Oscar Wilde, but way crueler. 

Brickbat Books
709 S. 4th Street

Brickbat Books is the other relatively new addition to the ranks of Philadelphia's used bookstores. Unlike the rest of the stores on this list, Brickbat doesn't have even a hint of the must and dust that habitually wreath such establishments. You will not find books stacked to the rafters here, no excess literature sloping onto the floor. (Brick Bat stocks a healthy mix of both new and used books.) In a storefront this size the selection can't be comprehensive, but it's certainly expertly curated.

Favorite find: Murial Spark's The Girls of Slender Means, the best novel you've never heard of. What begins as an enjoyable -- if weird -- comedy is gradually transformed by ruthless visitations, existential grotesquery and the random awfulness of the world. All in less than 200 pages! 

JAKE BLUMGART is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter
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