A Short History of Robin’s Book Store
by Larry Robin
Robin’s Book Store was opened at 21 North 11th Street by my grandfather, David, in 1936. My father Herman and my uncle Morris soon joined him. It was the Depression, and my father’s job was to sit by the compactor in the paper yard and pull out magazines that were re-salable, the origin of the recycled magazine business that we are still in. From the very beginning, Robin’s served a wide range of customers, since we sold new and used books and magazines.
In 1960, Robin’s moved to 6 North 13th Street, I graduated from Central High School, studied sculpture during the day and worked in the store at night. The paperback revolution had just begun in the book industry and I was given that department. Up until then most books were only published in hardback. Kennedy has just been elected, there was an intellectual curiosity abroad and the price of paperbacks was affordable. Robin’s became a center for the counterculture, supporting the civil rights struggle, the anti-war movement. the women’s movement and experimental literature. We had the books that others would not carry. Books on politics and art, on the Civil Rights Movement and Revolution. Books by African American authors and Beat poets. We had everything from Erotica to Mao, from small political and literary magazines to anti-war and rock posters. You could find Richard Wright and John A. Williams, Malcolm X and Huey Newton, Sartre and DeBeauvoir, Durrenmatt and Lessing, Fanon and Guevara, Ginsberg and Levertov. We were open 14 hours a day, you could always find someone to argue politics or literature with, and downtown Philadelphia was a lively and interesting place.
Barney Rosset bought Grove Press, a small hardback publisher. He sat in the warehouse and ripped the hard covers off the books and rebound them in paperback. He was in tune with the times. He brought avante guard literature from Europe and began to fight the censorship laws in America. He published Lady Chaterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence and followed that with Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller in 1964.
I loved it. Philadelphia District Attorney, James Crumlish, Jr. didn’t. He notified the book community that he did not want this book sold in his city. Barney said he would support us if we would fight the censor. I had a conference with my father and uncle and we informed the DA, “If you don’t want this book sold, you will have to come and take it.” Robin’s Book Store was the only book store in Philadelphia to refuse to remove the book. They made it a civil case and asked the court for an injunction to stop Robin’s from selling Tropic of Cancer. Leary’s Book Store advertised that they won’t carry the book. The case is on the front page every day for a week and we sold 7000 copies. We lost. The Supreme Court later reversed another case and made it legal to sell The Tropic of Cancer in the United States.
It was the 60’s, you could stand up for what was right, and not only not go to jail but make money. I got more political, we gave out anti-war literature at the counter, we sold the Black Panther Paper, we got shipments of Quotations from Chairman Mao by the case directly from China. The FBI arrived. My father said to me, “The only thing they can do, is make you lose your job, and they can’t do that here.”
Time passes. Money is always tight. Charles Rappaport bought the building we were in and doubled the rent. I noticed that many small businesses went out of business when their ten year lease came up for renewal. Somehow small business never seems to keep up with real estate values. I read a report from the American Booksellers Association that says that rent should be 9% of gross. I said to my partners, “The only way we can stay in business is to own our location.” I started looking and in 1980 found a building only two blocks south at 108-110 South 13th Street.
In 1981, Robin’s Book Store moved to 108 South 13th Street. With more space and a second floor we began having events in the evening. Poetry readings, children’s programs, political speakers, famous and unknown authors were all presented. We even showed silent movies with live piano and popcorn.
In 1983 we founded Moonstone Inc. as a non profit corporation, to allow us to create programs that were needed but not cost effective. My wife, developed children’s programs based on Howard Gardner’s theories of multiple intelligence, using the arts to stimulate cognitive development. I developed adult programs on the relationship of art and politics, literature as self- empowerment. The Celebration of Black Writing has run for 17 years. The Paul Robeson Festival had ten seasons. The Philadelphia Ink, Women’s Ink and Poetry Philadelphia programs have run over the last ten years, spotlighting Philadelphia based writers.
We sponsored a regular readings program from 1983 – 2008, presenting over 100 readings a year. The attendance ranged from hundreds of people turning out for Maya Angelou and Jerry Adams to large crowds for Sonia Sanchez, Eleanor Wilner, and Walter Mosley, to one person coming to meet Terry McMillan (when her first book came our and nobody knew her). The authors have ranged from Pulitzer Prize winners Rita Dove and Charles Fuller to young authors who are self-published. We do our best to support Philadelphia area and emerging writers.
The 1990’s were not good to Robin’s Book Store, which lost money for the entire decade. What were the factors which contributed to this? One was what was happening in the book industry and another was what was happening in our neighborhood. We have survived this period when over 50% of independent books stores nationwide went out of business and Center City Philadelphia languished. The year 2000 saw us almost double our income and brought us very close to break even.
In terms of the book industry, we have faced 20 years of consolidation and corporate takeover of both publishing and book selling. In publishing we have seen major publishing reduced to six multi-national corporations, none of which are headquartered in the United States. In book selling: what was once, primarily, local independent stores; is now dominated by three national chains of 30,000 square foot superstores, selling entertainment product, including books, music, and videos. Philadelphia had 15 bookstores in center city, it now has two general independent bookstores, both of which own their own locations.
This period also saw the decline of Center City Philadelphia. Our neighborhood, east of broad, was allowed to languish through the 1970’s and 1980’s, while the location of the Convention Center and the development of the Tourist Industry were debated. The location of the Convention Center in Center City, the construction of new hotels, the development of Tourism, the conversion of old office building to condo’s and apartments, and the arrival of Tony Goldman have all contributed to turning East of Broad around.
The future is looking good. We now have a bedroom community, tourists and an office customer base. There are new restaurants and up-scale shops opening and Center City is alive with theater and music on the Avenue of the Arts.
By standing still we have gone from an area open 24 hours a day to an area with office buildings devoid of windows on the lower floors back to a lively center of culture. Welcome to my neighborhood.
What I Believe
by Larry Robin
The one big question is how we, as sentient beings in this universe, as homosapiens on this planet should treat each other. That’s the easy one. You should treat everyone the same as you would want to be treated. The corollary is whatever you do is going to come back to you. The Golden Rule and Karma.
The Race Question. Barbara Chase-Riboud, at our 16th Annual Celebration of Black Writing, pointed out that humankind began in East Africa. That everyone is part of the African Diaspora and that the question really was, “How long ago your ancestors left Africa.”
The Color Question. She further pointed out that your color depended on where your ancestors ended up and how long they were there for. And that if we would just have more sex, we would all end up the same color, just like we were when we started out.
The Censorship Question. Ralph Wiley, at the 15th Annual Celebration of Black Writing, took issue with the Pennsylvania NAACP’s effort to exclude Huckleberry Finn from the list of required reading. The NAACP was objecting to the fact that a character in the book was named Nigger Jim. Ralph pointed out that this character was the only one who had any integrity, praised Mark Twain as one of America’s greatest authors, and showed how Twain was, in fact, exposing the hypocrisy of race in America. He concluded his presentation with, “Nobody ever learned anything by not reading something.”
What It is I Do: I sell books. The written record of thoughts and feelings and facts. This is the primary way in which humankind communicates. There is history, where we come from and what we have done. There is poetry, taking us beyond facts into our feelings. There are novels, exploring our experiences and sharing our successes and failures. Contrary to popular belief, this is not just product. A independent book store is by it’s nature, a community center and the book seller is an educator. Our job is to help our customers find what they are looking for. All of us are looking for the Truth. Of course, our customers do not always know that. You need to analyze where each customer is, find what they are looking for and figure out how you can help them take the next step.
Modern Black Romances feature strong black women, making a series of life choices, with a happy ending. Some are written better then others. Donna Hill has started writing a step above the regular romance. Valerie Wilson-Wesley has a series of mysteries featuring a strong single mother private investigator. She has also written a novel (romance?) dealing with family issues of people in their 40’s. Bebe Moore Campbell’s Brothers and Sisters deal with the conflict of loyalty between race and sex. Walter Mosley features men who have little money but have lots of intelligence and integrity. Barbara Neeley brings the issues of class to her mysteries, exploring social issues within Black society as well as White society. Sonia Sanchez explores both social issues and emotional ones in her poetry. Does Your House Have Lions, which deals with the death of her brother, is a powerful aid to anyone who loses a loved one.
The Truth. Marita Golden, in response to a question on why Black Women’s writing was finding a market, responded, that black women were probably the most oppressed group and therefore had nothing to lose, and therefore could afford to tell the truth. And the truth resonates. And the truth is universal. Things Fall Apart. A line from a poem by a great Irish Poet named Yeats, to the title of a novel by a great African Novelist named Achebe, to the name of a CD by a Philadelphia rap group named Roots. The truth flows on.
The Revolution. Like it or not, we are part of the revolution, because the Truth is revolutionary. It does not follow a party line. It does not support any government. It does not maintain the statue quo. The Truth shall set you free. Free people do not blindly obey. They question and search for answers. They strive for a better world.