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A Novel Idea on Passyunk: This Independent Bookstore Fosters a Creative Community For Local Artists and Writers
Planting The Seed of Community With a Local Bookstore
We started with a very simple idea: open an independent bookstore and event space that reflects and supports the community.
On December 1st, 2018, my husband, Alex, and I opened A Novel Idea on Passyunk, an eight hundred square foot storefront in South Philadelphia. As artists, it was important to cultivate a space where local artists’ work was, and always would be, front and center. Not shoved in the corner or only promoted during special events, but given an entire section at the front of the store to showcase local small presses, authors, and artisan goods.
Alongside carrying books and goods by local artists, we wanted there to be opportunities for these artists, as well as visiting ones, to share their work with the community through a variety of events. In the past eleven months, we’ve hosted over two hundred, the majority of which featured local authors, dramaturges, and actors.
The idea for a community bookstore was born out of exhaustion and frustration. I was an adjunct writing professor at three universities in the Greater Philadelphia area, and Alex was a graphic designer at a sports apparel company in South Jersey. We worked long hours that usually didn’t match up, and neither of us felt appreciated at our jobs. We were low on free time, energy, and inspiration when the first seed was planted for A Novel Idea.
We were walking around our neighborhood and I pointed at an empty storefront. “That would make a cute bookstore,” I said. Alex replied, “Why don’t we open one?”
That question floated through my head for the next few weeks. The more we talked about it, the fantasy of owning a bookstore shifted to a reality. There hadn’t been a bookstore in East Passyunk in over a decade, so we could add a business that was not only vastly different than the restaurants and retail nearby, but something the community was missing. Opening a bookstore would also give us a chance to spend more time together and work in an environment where inspiration blossomed instead of withering. Lastly, it would be a perfect way to blend our passions: graphic design and creative writing.
A year later, A Novel Idea opened. Neither of us had worked in a bookstore before, or retail, for that matter. We spent the first month dealing with issues as they arrived. Things like how often to place orders, what kind of merchandise sells well, or how the weather affects sales. We worked twelve hours days, learning just how much a small business takes from its proprietors. We learned what it meant to be business partners instead of settling into being newlyweds. (We got married two months before the store opened).
There is so much to reflect on after nearly a year of running a small business. In the last few months, we’ve weeded out the titles that don’t fit us or the community. You won’t find every bestselling title or new release in our store. That’s not our mission. Instead, you’ll find a large small press and local author section. You’ll find tarot cards and handmade artisan goods. You’ll find a large children’s area, along with sections like New Age and Death and Dying.
Our first year has been more prosperous than we could have ever imagined. For every challenge (and there have been many), there have also been triumphs. We have connected with so many talented, amazing artists in our city, and around the country. We have formed a community that feels abundant and supportive. As someone who always felt on the outside, unable to fit in, for the first time in my life I feel like I belong.
My husband and I still don’t spend enough quality time together or get enough sleep. We are the only staff at A Novel Idea, and host multiple events per week, on top of our regular store hours. We certainly aren’t millionaires, either. But every day we come to our little shop, we feel at home in the cozy space we’ve created. Sometimes, I just stop and look around. I’m living a lifelong dream, surrounded by books and art every day. It’s hard to believe that I own and run a bookstore for a living.
As we near our second year in business, A Novel Idea has many goals. However, the main one is to continue fostering a sense of community and a love for books. We hope we have planted seeds that will bloom for many years to come.