Friday, January 23, 2009
My wife and I went to Robin's Bookstore in Philadelphia right after Christmas 2008. We did so to gather up our chapbooks from their shelves as they are closing as a bookstore after 73 years and also to see what treasures we might find lingering as the bookstore winds down and discounts deepen along the way. My wife, Katy, found "a thin sliver of nothing" as I call them, a tiny chapbook, actually a booklet (all of 4 pages). It had been in the basement (catacombs) of Robins since the late 1970's. "Playing the Game" was printed at Moore College in Philadelphia back in 1976. It was a single poet by John De Witt and was designed by Keith Newhouse. The publisher is listed as Cold Chair Books.
As it happened, I decided to write about this booklet on one of my other blogs, chap*books, and before doing so I wanted to do a bit of research on this "thin sliver". I asked around and discovered that John De Witt could be teaching at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, which I checked and can confirm, and that De Witt had been working with a Bill Walton (not the basketball player) at Moore College as Cold Chair Books. De Witt listed the handful of chapbooks that Cold Chair had produced including a chapbook that I discovered on a bookshelf at the Free Library of Philadelphia, Alexandra Grilikhes' City Poems. I must say that I was tempted to steal the chapbook. I was a good citizen though and returned it before it's due date.
Among the other treasures we found that day were a Git Ott chapbook, a piece of short fiction published by Meridian Writers Coop, a story by Francis Davis who has gone on to write several books on jazz, as well as chapbooks that may not have seen the light of day in 3 decades. Bookstores can be large Xs on the treasure map of discovery for book collectors, and scouts (of course). Bookstores have their basements the way old movie theaters had their vaults, their secret films - their own unknown treasures. So, maybe there is an upside to Robins ending it's long run as a functioning bookstore in Philadelphia. The material in their basement will bubble up to the surface again.
At the same time, I feel for Larry Robin who had to make the painful decision to change course and bring things to closure. I worked with Larry earlier this decade and I know the struggles he endured to keep his independent bookstore afloat in a city where the corporate bookstores had muscled their way in. In the end, it was Amazon and online booksellers that did him in. A cautionary tale for the times.