Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Ann K. Johnson


[caption id="attachment_20458" align="alignright" width="236"]An illustration of Thomas Ellwood Chapman’s Book Store and Book Bindery (74 North Fourth St, Philadelphia). A woman leans forward, looking at the books displayed in the store’s window, while a man walks in through the door to the left. Various signs on the three-story building read, “RAGS BOUGHT,” “BOOK BINDERY,” “T.E. CHAPMAN BOOK SELLER” and “BOOK STORE.” This printed advertisement from 1847 depicts Thomas Ellwood Chapman’s Book Store and Book Bindery at 74 N. Fourth Street, Philadelphia. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Bookstores have long been an important part of the economic and cultural fabric of Philadelphia. As early as the eighteenth century, booksellers set up shop in the city, eager to serve a highly-educated population hungry for information. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the number of bookstores continued to rise. These stores sold a wide variety of titles, from the latest best sellers to rare first editions. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, bookselling began to change in significant ways. The growth of chain bookstores, and, later, the Internet, resulted in the closing of independent bookstores across the region.  

In colonial America, many printers were also booksellers. Bookselling helped provide the capital that men like William Bradford (1663-1752), Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), Thomas Dobson (1751-1823), and Mathew Carey (1760-1839) needed to finance their printing and, later, publishing operations. During this period, booksellers imported most of their stock from Europe. Religious texts, almanacs, and schoolbooks sold particularly well. Booksellers also sold stationery and other items. One of Philadelphia’s earliest bookstores was run by the Martinique-born author Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry (1750-1819), who first came to Philadelphia to escape the violence of the French Revolution. He opened his shop at Front and Walnut Streets in 1794, selling a variety of foreign-language books. His bookstore quickly became a center for the French expatriate community in the city.

[caption id="attachment_20455" align="alignright" width="241"]An illustration of W.A. Leary & Co.’s Cheap Book Store depicting the three-story building with book displays positioned in front, along with several shoppers; one shopper sits and reads while another crouches and browses through a box of books. This illustration of W.A. Leary & Co.’s Cheap Book Store (in its original location at 138 N. Second Street) depicts the three-story building with book displays positioned in front, along with several shoppers. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Bookstores thrived in Philadelphia during the nineteenth century, as literacy rates continued to climb and reading became an important part of American self-improvement efforts. Although several local publishers, such as J.B. Lippincott & Co., ran retail stores, as the century progressed bookselling became largely independent from printing and publishing. Leary’s Book Store, founded in 1836 by Maryland-born William A. Leary (1816-65), became one of the city’s most popular places to buy books. The store, which had several locations including 138 N. Front Street (1836), Fifth and Walnut Streets (1868), and 9 S. Ninth Street (1877), did not gain prominence until it was taken over by former employee Edwin S. Stuart (1853-1937) in 1876. Leary’s became known for its large stock of used books as well as for its distinctive sign, which featured an older man on top of a ladder with his hands full of books. In 1891, Stuart became mayor of Philadelphia, and, in 1907, he became governor of Pennsylvania. Stuart’s brother, William H. Stuart, took over the operation of the store. Under William, Leary’s continued to thrive. Writer Christopher Morley (1890-1957), who frequented the shop, used it as the inspiration for his mystery novel The Haunted Book Shop (1919). By 1950, Leary’s was selling almost 40,000 books a week. The store closed in 1968.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, books could be found not only in bookstores but also in department stores as well. John Wanamaker (1838-1922) started selling a few children’s books in his Philadelphia store in 1877. By 1884, he was selling $10,000 worth of books a day. He even published the monthly magazine Book News to advertise his offerings. Before long, other Philadelphia department stores began selling books, including Gimbels, Strawbridge and Clothier, and Snellenburg’s.

[caption id="attachment_20454" align="aligncenter" width="575"]A colored illustration of the interior of George G. Evans gift book establishment.  The interior is long and narrow, with book shelves lining each wall, packed tightly with books of various sizes and colors.  Shoppers browse, wearing typical mid-nineteenth century garb. Bookselling thrived in Philadelphia during the nineteenth century, and shops such as the George G. Evans “gift book store” at 439 Chestnut Street promoted their polished locations with advertisements such as this one, from the 1850s. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

During the twentieth century, women became more prominent in the bookselling business. One advocate for women in bookselling in the region was Georgiana Hall, who worked for Wanamaker’s. In 1914, Hall gave a speech on the subject in front of the Philadelphia Booksellers’ Association. Hall argued that in addition to careers in teaching and librarianship, college-educated women should also consider bookselling. Another important woman in the bookselling business was Elisabeth Woodburn (1912-90). Woodburn sold books out of her farmhouse in Hopewell, New Jersey, where she specialized in agricultural and horticultural books. Woodburn was a founding member of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America (ABAA) and later became the group’s president.

Woodburn was one of many antiquarian booksellers who clustered in and around Philadelphia in the early twentieth century. Perhaps the most famous was A.S.W. Rosenbach (1876-1952), who started the Rosenbach Company at 1320 Walnut Street in 1903. Known for offering extremely rare books, including Gutenberg Bibles and Shakespeare Folios, Rosenbach sold to some of the richest men in the United States, including Henry E. Huntington (1850-1927) and Henry C. Folger (1857-1930). Rosenbach and his brother Philip Rosenbach (1863-1953) established the Rosenbach Museum and Library in 1954 to showcase their personal collection of books. In 2013, it became part of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

One of Rosenbach’s neighbors and competitors, the Vienna-born bookseller Charles Sessler (1854-1935), opened his shop on 1314 Walnut Street in 1906. Sessler sold all sorts of rare books, but he specialized in the work of Charles Dickens. Sessler’s assistant, Mabel Zahn (1890-1975), began working at the store when she was only fifteen years old and took over the store when Sessler died. Zahn became president of Sessler’s in 1955.

The 1960s and 1970s brought new energy to Philadelphia, with the growth of the counterculture and new social movements. The city’s bookstores reflected these changes. Robin’s Book Store was founded by David Robin (1901-74) in 1936 at 21 N. Eleventh Street. Eventually moving to 6 N. Thirteenth Street, Robin’s gained notoriety in the 1960s as one of the few bookstores in the city willing to sell Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (1891-1980). Many people considered the book controversial because of its sexually explicit content, and the city’s district attorney tried to ban bookstores from carrying it. Robin’s refused and ended up selling 7,000 copies in one week. In 1980, Robin's moved to 108 S. Thirteenth Street. The store closed in 2012.

[caption id="attachment_20941" align="alignright" width="300"]An image of the interior of Joseph Fox Bookshop featuring a wall covered in bookshelves and colorful books, with the front desk on the right-hand side (featuring more books). Opened in 1951, Joseph Fox Bookshop is the oldest independent bookshops in Philadelphia. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Other bookstores served specialized audiences. New World Book Fair was located at 113 S. Fortieth Street in West Philadelphia. Opened by William H. Crawford (1911-2002) in 1961, the store sold Marxist and African American books and became known as a gathering place for local activists. It closed in 1974. Giovanni’s Room, one of the first gay book shops in the United States, opened in Center City in 1973. Founded by Tom Wilson Weinberg (b. 1945), Dan Sherbo (b. 1950), and Bern Boylethe (1951-92), the shop took on an especially important role during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, when it sold books about HIV that could be found nowhere else. In 1975, activist Sheila Lee Goldmacher (b. 1934) helped found Alexandria Books, Philadelphia’s first lesbian and feminist bookstore. The shop closed two years later. Two other important activist bookstores that were founded during this time were House of Our Own, which opened in 1970 at 3920 Spruce Street, and Wooden Shoe Books, which opened in 1976 at 112 S. Twentieth Street.

Beginning in the 1980s, independent bookstores in the Philadelphia region faced stiff competition from large chain bookstores like B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, Barnes & Noble, and Borders, which could afford to heavily discount their books. During this period the Booksellers’ Association of Philadelphia, which had 250 members in the 1950s, disbanded. By the 1990s, the online retailer Amazon.com began offering books for even lower prices. Many independent bookstores closed, but others managed to find their niche. Joseph Fox Books was founded in 1951 by Madeline and Joseph Fox in Rittenhouse Square. In the mid-1990s, the store, which by then had moved to 1724 Sansom Street, started hosting authors’ events to draw readers to the store. As of 2016, it was the oldest independent bookstore in the city. Despite the dominance of Amazon.com and the rise of ebooks, the opening of several new independent bookstores, including Big Blue Marble Bookstore and Port Richmond Books, continued to make print books available to Philadelphia readers.

Ann K. Johnson is the Library Publishing and Scholarly Communications Specialist at Temple University. She holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Southern California.

Book Publishing and Publishers

Between 1750 and 1800, Philadelphia became the center for book printing and publishing in the United States, surpassing New York and Boston. Although Philadelphia lost that primacy in the nineteenth century, firms specializing in medical and religious publishing continued to do well. By the mid to late twentieth century, however, as the publishing industry consolidated, few independent Philadelphia book publishers remained.

In the late seventeenth century, William Bradford (1663-1752) established the first printing press in Philadelphia. For many years, he was the only printer in the city. In colonial America, printers often acted as booksellers and sometimes as publishers of broadsides, pamphlets, newspapers, and almanacs. Book publishing was far less common during this period because it was so risky. Printing and binding books was expensive, and would-be publishers had no guarantee that they would be able to recoup their investment through sales. Instead, printers preferred to import books from Great Britain.

[caption id="attachment_17379" align="alignright" width="242"]A painted portrait of Benjamin Franklin Benjamin Franklin published sixteen books while living in Philadelphia and operated a print shop and book bindery at 320 Market Street. (National Portrait Gallery)[/caption]

Nonetheless, a few enterprising printers in the Philadelphia region published books during the eighteenth century. Perhaps the most famous of these was Benjamin Franklin (1706-90). Over the course of his career, Franklin printed and financed sixteen books including Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela (1742-44) and Philadelphia politician and scholar James Logan’s translation of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s Cato Major (1744). One of Franklin’s contemporaries was Christopher Saur (1695-1758). Saur set up shop northwest of Philadelphia in Germantown, where he focused on printing and publishing German-language materials to serve a growing population of German immigrants.

Another early printer and publisher who operated outside of Philadelphia was Delaware-born Isaac Collins (1746-1817). Collins got his start in Philadelphia as an apprentice before moving to Burlington and, later, Trenton, New Jersey. Collins mostly published religious texts as well as a few schoolbooks. Scottish-born printer Thomas Dobson (1751-1823) took on perhaps the most ambitious printing and publishing project during this period: the first American edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1789-98). In order to finance this expensive multivolume work, Dobson gathered subscribers from across the country, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Still, Dobson had trouble finding enough support for the project, and the Britannica was not a financial success.

A Surge in Printers

In the second half of the eighteenth century the number of printers began to grow substantially. Printers gravitated to Philadelphia because of its large, cosmopolitan population, as well as its high concentration of learned organizations, from the American Philosophical Society to the University of Pennsylvania. Geographic location played an important role as well. Philadelphia’s proximity to important rivers and roads meant that printed materials could more easily reach markets in the South and West. By the late 1830s, however, Philadelphia’s growth slowed. With the opening of the Erie Canal, New York possessed superior waterways as well as several large general publishing firms that proved to be tough competition.

[caption id="attachment_17377" align="alignright" width="248"]A painted portrait of Mathew Carey. Political activist and printer Mathew Carey is considered the first modern printer in Philadelphia. Carey published the first American Atlas and the first American Roman Catholic Bible in the city after fleeing persecution in Ireland. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

By the nineteenth century, the market for print had expanded considerably. More Americans could read than ever before, and there was a growing sense that an educated society was crucial to a thriving democracy. These changes, along with a booming economy, made printers more willing to take risks and publish books. It was also during this period that the line between printer and publisher became more defined. Mathew Carey (1759-1839) is generally considered Philadelphia’s first modern publisher. Born in Ireland, Carey got his start as a printer but soon focused his attention solely on publishing and bookselling. He found success publishing British novels, such as Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (first published by Carey in 1794). Carey also pioneered new methods in marketing and distribution that few American publishers had tried before. In the 1820s, Carey asked his oldest son, Henry Charles Carey (1793-1879), and his son-in-law, Isaac Lea (1792-1886), to take over the firm, under the new name Carey & Lea. The firm went on to publish a wide variety of books, including popular novels by Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. Eventually, fierce competition from the growing Harper Brothers in New York helped convince the firm to shift its focus to medical publishing. Carey & Lea was located in the right city for such a specialization, as Philadelphia was home to a growing medical community which included two medical schools. Over the years, the firm changed names several times. By the twentieth century it was known as Lea & Febiger.

[caption id="attachment_17375" align="alignright" width="240"]The cover of a book titled J.B. Lippincott & Co. printed and bound books at a large factory on the 700 block of Market Street. On this book, The New Hyperion, the Lippincott name is visible on the spine. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Another important nineteenth-century Philadelphia publishing firm was J.B. Lippincott & Co. Founded in 1836 by New Jersey-born Joshua B. Lippincott (1813-86), the firm got its start publishing religious books. By the 1850s Lippincott began to focus on medical publications and gift books. While Lippincott was known as a publisher, the firm did considerable work as a jobber, helping to distribute books published by other firms to retail stores in the South. Lippincott also operated a large factory for printing and bookbinding at 715 Market Street. The company was incredibly successful, by the end of the nineteenth century printing around 2,000 books per year.

Religious publishers thrived in Philadelphia during the nineteenth century. These organizations, financed largely by donations, sold some of their publications but mostly gave books away for free. The Philadelphia Bible Society, founded in 1809, published Bibles and New Testaments. The American Sunday School Union got its start in Philadelphia in 1824 and soon became one of the largest national religious publishing societies in the United States. The group aimed to establish Sunday Schools across the country and to supply each school with religious books appropriate for children. In addition to noncommercial publishers, by the mid-nineteenth century many general publishers partnered with specific denominations to supply religious works. J.B. Lippincott & Co., for example, allied with the Protestant Episcopal Church.

Subscription Publishing

Another distinctive aspect of the book trade in Philadelphia was its focus on subscription publishing. Subscription books were sold door to door by agents, instead of through a bookstore. Many types of books were sold by subscription, including novels, histories, and reference works. While Hartford and Chicago are often identified as centers of the subscription book trade, Philadelphia also played an important role. In fact, Mathew Carey was one of the earliest American publishers to rely on a book peddler to sell his books. His book agent, a clergyman and author named Mason Locke Weems (1759-1825), traveled across the South trying to convince people to buy. After the Civil War, a number of publishing firms specializing in subscription books formed in Philadelphia, including T. Ellwood Zell, Gebbie and Barrie, and later, the National Publishing Company. Even general publishers like J.B. Lippincott & Co. maintained a subscription book department. Most subscription publishers eventually went bankrupt during the early twentieth century, when the practice of selling books door to door largely ended.

Despite the many book publishers in Philadelphia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, few were women. Two of city’s earliest female publishers were Jane Aitken (1764-1832) and Lydia Bailey (1779-1869). Although they were printers first and foremost (Lydia Bailey did printing work for Mathew Carey, among others), Aitken and Bailey occasionally acted as publishers. Aitken, for example, published the first American translation of the Bible in 1808. By the late nineteenth century, although more women were entering other areas of the book trade, the number of women book publishers did not increase. In 1880, Florence I. Duncan (1849-1906) and Mary R. Heygate Hall (?-?) formed Duncan & Hall. The firm published at least one book, Ye Last Sweet Thing in Corners (1880), which was written by Duncan. Another woman publisher was Louise C. Boname (?-?), a French teacher in the city who wrote and published French language books for students beginning in 1896.

[caption id="attachment_17374" align="alignright" width="233"]A color painting of a woman on a bicycle carrying a magazine with J.B. Lippincott & Co. published this monthly literary magazine in Philadelphia for over fifty years, from 1868 to 1915. It published works from such renowned authors as Oscar Wilde and Rudyard Kipling. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

By the early twentieth century, book publishing in Philadelphia was dominated by a few well-established firms including Lea & Febiger and J.B. Lippincott & Co. In 1901, Lippincott moved to new offices at 227 S. Sixth Street, overlooking Washington Square. W.B. Saunders, Lea & Febiger, David McKay, and others eventually moved to the area as well, making it a center for publishing in the city. Perhaps the best-known book Lippincott published during this period was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). Lippincott was sold to Harper & Row in 1978, and then to the Dutch company Wolters Kluwer in 1990. The imprint is now called Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. Lea & Febiger was sold to Baltimore-based Waverly Inc. in 1990. Waverly was bought by Wolters Kluwer in 1998 and became part of Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Only a handful of new publishing firms formed in Philadelphia during the twentieth century. One of the most important was Running Press, founded by brothers Stuart and Larry Teacher in 1972 to publish nonfiction, children’s literature, and miniature books. Although acquired by New York’s Perseus Book Group in 2002, Running Press remained headquartered in Philadelphia.

While commercial publishing declined, universities became the major publishers of books in the Philadelphia region. University presses got their start publishing faculty scholarship, but soon expanded to publishing the work of other scholars. The University of Pennsylvania Press, established in 1890, began to regularly publish books in 1927, when Phelps Soule (1883-1968) was brought in from Yale University Press to act as a full-time editor. Under Soule, the press grew substantially, publishing books on a wide variety of topics from finance to medicine to bibliography to history. Other presses soon followed. The University of Delaware Press was founded in 1922, Rutgers University Press was founded in 1936, and Temple University Press began publishing in 1969. Saint Joseph’s University Press, primarily a publisher of books on Catholic history and culture, was founded in 1997. Although most books published by university presses are aimed at scholarly readers, some have found a wider audience. The Lincoln Reader, edited by Paul M. Angle and published by Rutgers University Press, was named a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in 1947.

Book publishing is one of Philadelphia’s oldest industries. Early on, Philadelphia printers like Benjamin Franklin and Mathew Carey understood the importance of books to a new nation. Especially during the first half of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia publishers played a crucial role in producing books for readers in remote areas across the United States. As the book trade grew, Philadelphia publishers successfully adapted to a changing market. Ultimately, Philadelphia’s book publishers became part of a national and international industry.

Ann K. Johnson is the Council on Library and Information Resources Postdoctoral Fellow at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Southern California.

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