An Open Bookstore

Talking with the owners of A Novel Idea

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in Conversations

Philadelphia’s Passyunk Avenue appears from nowhere, cutting diagonally from Queen’s Village through South Philadelphia. Following it, you get a cross-section of old and new Philadelphia. Historical row houses bump shoulders with condos. Family businesses coexist with hot new restaurants, boutiques, and local markets. Regardless of changes to the community is the neighborhood feel of Passyunk Square. One thing, however, was missing: a bookstore. While Philadelphia has an assortment of independent and box store bookstores, local couple Christina Rosso-Schneider and Alex Schneider, saw a gap. At the start of December, their store, A Novel Idea, opened on 1726 E. Passyunk, preparing their community for a new year full of literary treatures, local art, and events aimed to bring the community together. On a brisk but beautiful day, we sat in their store talking about some of our favorite things: Scholastic book sales, cozy spaces, and the joys of loitering.

Melinda Lewis: The first thing I wanted to talk about was just bookstore nostalgia. Did y’all grow up in bookstores? As kids, would you go to the bookstore and just run around and grab books? I remember the bookstore being this really exciting place of possibilities. Granted, I was getting Jughead comics and Goosebumps novels, but I was still really excited, nonetheless.

Christina Rosso-Schneider: Yeah, I’ve always loved bookstores. I mean I was reading like several grades ahead from like age four on. I just couldn’t get enough of reading and writing. I’m also a writer. My Dad taking me to the Scholastic Book Fair at school, which —

ML: Serious love!

CRS: Serious love for that.

Alex Schneider: I don’t think they still do those.

CRS: I don’t know if they do. I grew up about 45 minutes outside of the city. We didn’t have any small bookstores. It was either my Dad taking me to Barnes and Noble or, Borders still existed then, right? Or we’d go to a book fair at school. And that was so exciting.

The one thing my dad always said was: “I don’t mind spending the money if it’s on books.” So, I got sooooo many books as a kid and it was such a special part of me finding myself as a person because how I spent my Friday nights from when I was eight was falling asleep reading a book and then waking up in the morning to pick it up again. That love, for me, has never gone away.

ML: It’s funny. My Mom had the same line of, “If you want books, I’ll buy them.” I think that’s a line parents pull to make books feel magical. Like a special indulgence. It has not helped me now, because “I’m like, it’s books so let’s just buy all of them.”

AS: When I was in high school with a bunch of my friends, Barnes and Noble was the place to go, because we also didn’t have a little bookstore. I mean we were gremlins, and it was that or wandering the mall being sketchy kids so the bookstore was a really nice place. I wasn’t as enamored at a young age, but when I was at U Arts for college it became just an all-the-time-pouring-through-countless-books a week and I really kind of found my love a little later in life.

ML: But getting there nonetheless.

I think the fact bookstores encourage loitering is a really important thing. People aren’t trying to shoo you out like a lot of other establishments and I think Barnes and Noble is a good example of watching people sit all day in a chair reading and nobody’s poking them to get out because they’re scaring the other people. It’s like if you’re quiet and just to yourself, that’s okay.

When did this love of books turn into a vision of a bookstore?

CRS: As a writer who loves reading, you always think about, “Yeah, it’d be really cool if I ran my own bookstore.” Right? It wasn’t like it was ever going to happen. I’m an adjunct professor now and have a million different careers that I’ve thought about doing. But it was about a year ago it came up somehow in a conversation between the two of us, I must have said something like, “Well I’ve always wanted to open a bookstore. That would be a cute spot for a bookstore” or something like that.

It started very much as a joke. Then, Alex was like, “Why don’t we open a bookstore?” From there, we both just kind of let it stew. I think it was within a week, it was really him pushing for it, like, “We could do this. If you want to do this, let’s do it.” So, then we were like, “Okay, let’s do it.” And here we are.

ML: And South Philly is one of those places that is just growing and a cool space to have an intellectual site like A Novel Idea. You have books where there seems to be a focus on locality. On your shelves, you’re putting in Philadelphia writers, books by local presses, and stuff like that. Additionally, just the idea of a bookstore as a community space, right? You can have gremlin children come in and hang out. Or a place where people can exchange ideas.

CRS: Yeah, so you’re touching on things that are a part of what we envision for this space. So we want to, first and foremost, be a space that reflects our community and the types of books, events, and things that the people, who live here or come here, want. That’s our first thing. We want to be a space people can come and hang out, exchange ideas, or just browse books.

We very much want it to be a space that people feel comfortable coming to. That we have a variety of events that, maybe we’ll pull in someone that’s like Alex and didn’t fall in love with books right away, you know?

ML: The model customer, Alex.

CRS: The model customer that you can turnaround because it’s really easy to sell to someone like me. It’s like “yeah, just tell me what good books you have.”

ML: I was just reading beforehand about the rise of independent bookstores and I feel like all the things that you’ve articulated are the reasons why there seems to be an uptick or at least a continued interest. It’s not just the romantic notion, but you’re really integrating yourself into the community and really thinking about the community as you’re planning the store. As opposed to, “Eh, people buy books. Eh, we’ll make a profit.” It’s a holistic approach to building a space, which I think is really neat.

CRS: Thank you, we hope so. There’s also, I think you mentioned the word romantic. I think that is part of why there’s this renewed interest, if you will, in independent bookstores.

People are starting to get nostalgic for spaces where you can actually talk to people and physically touch books. Because, sure you could do that at Barnes and Noble and there’s nothing wrong with Barnes and Noble, but that’s not a personal feel. And then there’s Amazon, and I order books from Amazon sometimes, but I always try to find them at my local independent bookshops first and I don’t have to do that anymore which is cool. But I think some people are starting to be like, “I’m tired of always being on my phone and always having a screen in front of me and not actually interacting with people.” And since it’s literally just the two of us working the store people will get to know us and what our backgrounds are and what our interests are. Then, we hope, through that, we’ll learn about their backgrounds and their interests too.

ML: In terms of setting up the space what was your vision, either aesthetically or feeling wise? Because there’s an affected state to a bookstore, but each one could be different. You could have the dark, dim goth bookstore where everything looks like it’s probably not allowed. Or, you know, open and airy. I feel like A Novel Idea is more akin to that. But I’d be interested to know how you take a vision, and a dream, and make it into a realistic thing.

AS: Yeah, we went around to pretty much every bookstore in the city and —

CRS: And ones in other cities and other states that we visited.

AS: And we made a list of, as you do with anything, “I’d never do that. I really like the way they did this little thing.” And tried to bring things that we loved into our own style. Something that we’re both really proud of is several people have said, “Oh, it looks cozy.”

CRS: That was one of our words. That’s a feeling we want.

AS: We want it to feel like we’ve been here a while. Now, it will take some time to kind of get some dust on things, but we wanted to come out feeling kind of like an old soul, open and welcoming.

CRS: Yeah, and I would say other than cozy and comfortable, I also really wanted it to feel open. In part, that’s why I think we picked the door that we did, to make it feel like a sanctuary. You’re opening up and it’s bright in here. It’s cozy and it’s just filled with books. For me, it is a sanctuary. I wanted it to be a space that other people want to come, sit like we are here, read a book, look at the local artists that we have, look at the local cards that we have, or just chat with us. Those were the two big things that we wanted. And we definitely wanted it to feel open.

ML: And it’s not overwhelming. I feel like there are some places that you walk in and as excited as I am over books, to be surrounded by piles or from floor to ceiling books –

Christina: Yeah, we have some of those in the city.

ML: I feel like there’s still a really nice inventory here, but at the same time I’m not scared for my life.

Christina: That’s important.

AS: We went back and forth. We knew we didn’t want to do the floor to ceiling thing. We also didn’t want five people up on stools while other people walk past them kind of thing. Like –

ML: Shimmying.

AS: Yeah, that made both of us pretty nervous so we thought about going higher and then kind of set it up, and it’s like, “No, it looks weird and it’s too high for most people, and it doesn’t feel airy,” which was as important to us as filling them with bookshelves. We’re like, “Oh, we could stick another one here.” Or maybe some artwork or maybe just some open space so it makes it feel like you can exist in here and you’re not always being assaulted.

It was a balance that I think we hit pretty well.

ML: I feel like you’re part of a trail of just good vibes on Passyunk, right? In terms of how would you want to spend your day. Going to the bookstore, chilling out, relaxing and eating.

CRS: Plus, we’re dog-friendly. People like that.

ML: That’s also a selling point. If I can maybe see a dog, that would be awesome.

CRS: That’s the thing, like I was sitting behind the desk and someone was like, “Hey, can I bring my dog in?” I’m like, “What does your dog look like? Can I pet it?”

ML: “I’m not sure about if you can come in, but the dog is definitely welcome.” 

Photos provided by the author and further illustrations by Emily Anderson.

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.

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