On the brink of closing after nearly 60 years, the Penn Book Center finds new owners and new life.
“We are writing to you with great sadness,” the note began, beamed out to email lists and shared with Facebook followers on April 8, announcing the death of the Penn Book Center—a fixture on campus since it opened in 1962.
Married alumni Ashley Montague Gr’99 and Michael Row WG’89 GrW’01 purchased the independent bookstore in 2005 and sustained it through crushing competition both online and around the corner at the Barnes & Noble-run Penn Bookstore. Until they couldn’t make the numbers work anymore.
When Row and Montague sent out their message, revealing that the 57-year-old store would close at the end of May, “I was expecting people to say, ‘Oh, this is sad,’ and then maybe come to our sale,” Row says. “I thought we would sadly slink off into the night. We weren’t expecting what happened.”
What happened was an outpouring of support that turned into a grassroots movement to keep the campus landmark alive—and it worked. On September 1, the Penn Book Center gained new husband-and-wife owners who already have plans to renovate and refresh the shop while also preserving its mission as a go-to place for scholarly titles and events.
New owners Matthew Duques and Diana Bellonby were living in Alabama, packing up their house for a move to Philadelphia, when they saw the news stories about the Penn Book Center shutting its doors. They’d been daydreaming about opening their own bookshop for years. Duques called Row the next day.
“I said, ‘What if we tried to come in and take it over?’” Duques remembers. “We started from there.”
At the time, Row was fielding a lot of calls, both from people like Duques who wanted to buy the store and from others who wanted to connect him with small business experts. He was also hearing from people in the Penn community who were shocked by the closing announcement and determined to help the shop survive.
Associate English professor Chi-ming Yang quickly launched an online petition that garnered over 5,000 signatures, begging Penn to “stand behind its commitments to sustainability and social innovation” and have University leaders meet with the Penn Book Center owners to “work out a strategy to keep the bookstore in business.” On April 22, exactly two weeks after Row and Montague had sent out their shutting-up-shop email, five straight days of on-campus protests began.
Each morning a group gathered next to the Split Button sculpture outside Van Pelt Library. It was a traditional protest in that there were handmade cardboard signs (standouts: “Do not go gentle into that good night” and “Amazon kills, read locally”) and a megaphone, but the poetry readings and polite chanting, followed by a march over to Penn Book Center to browse and buy books, revealed the work of English professors. As a student passing by the protest on Locust Walk remarked loudly to her friend: “This is so cute!”
Watching the rallies and petition pick up steam, “we realized that the Penn Book Center wasn’t really ours to close,” Montague says. Row adds that the “explosion of support really kind of shook us, and we said, ‘We can’t just close. We have an obligation to make this thing go on if there’s any way.’”
The store had already weathered one change of both owner and location. Opened by Olga, Peter, and Achilles Nickles C’54 in 1962, it moved from its original spot on the 3700 block of Walnut Street—within the footprint of what is now Huntsman Hall—to its current address at 34th and Sansom in 1999.
The University, which owns the store’s building, agreed to give Row and Montague some flexibility over the summer to figure things out. And as conversations continued with Duques and Bellonby, it all seemed “too good to be true,” Row says. “They were just so perfect for this. They really valued the idea of an independent scholarly bookstore that’s connected to the community, and that’s exactly what we want for the store.”
The two couples were struck by how much their stories overlapped. Montague and Row both have PhDs from Penn—hers in English, his from Wharton. Duques and Bellonby also hold a pair of PhDs, both in English, from Vanderbilt University. Montague and Row opened the store as a family business when they had a three-year-old and a newborn. Duques and Bellonby are also raising two young children right now. And in a final show of kismet, they realized that Montague had taught Duques in a literature course he took during his freshman year at Haverford College.
Beyond that, the foursome had a deeper, shared vision of the Penn Book Center’s place in the community. But where Row and Montague struggled with sales, both the new and departing owners are optimistic that Duques and Bellonby can smooth out the trouble spots.
“We just didn’t have the money to go any further,” Row says. “They see the future and they have the capital to invest. This emerged as being just perfect. The best alternative.”
Duques says he and Bellonby—whose father is an alumnus, Mark Bellonby GAr’74—will overhaul the store’s website and build up its social media presence with a dedicated freelancer, maybe even two. The store will look different offline, too, with a new layout, furniture that invites lounging, an enhanced kids’ section, and literary gift items like notebooks and pens.
“We don’t want it to change that much,” Duques says, “but it’s a space that could be beautified a bit.”
Facing competition both online and on campus, where an Amazon depot opened in 2016, Montague and Row stopped selling textbooks several years ago. Instead they focused on building up their selection while also diving into hosting in-store readings and other events. Last year alone, they held more than 125. Duques plans to continue the emphasis on events and already has a slew of them slated through the fall.
Then there’s the name. With the Penn Bookstore down the street, there have been plenty of mix-ups over the years—and even in recent articles reporting on the store’s fate. Duques and Bellonby are debating what to call the store, if they end up changing the name at all. A poll sent out to Save Penn Book Center petition-signers asked for votes on several possible monikers. The new owners clocked the top picks and received some promising write-in suggestions, but they also heard from people who begged them not to make a change.
As for Row and Montague, they aren’t quite sure what’s next for them. They’ll both be on hand through the first few months of owner-to-owner transition. Beyond that, Row has no concrete plans, but Montague is feeling herself drawn to preserving urban streetscapes.
As she wrote in a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial just four days after the email announcing her shop’s closing: “Stores like ours keep the streetscape interesting.”
“Over the years,” she wrote, “our huge windows facing Sansom Street have featured themed displays on: women’s history, philosophy, French history, film, jazz, Pope Francis, cats vs. dogs, just to name a few.”
Five months later, thanks to a change of hands rather than a shutting of doors, those windows can continue to delight walkers along 34th and Sansom Streets for years to come.
—Molly Petrilla C’06