September 27, 2023
Residents of Fishtown are used to big things like massive condominiums and buzzworthy restaurants popping up in their perpetually up-and-coming neighborhood, but one of its newest arrivals is smaller and quainter than others: an independent bookstore.
Lot 49 Books, an indie bookshop and event space that first opened in a South Philly art space two years ago, recently relocated to a new storefront on Girard Avenue in Fishtown. After a quiet soft opening, the bookseller officially opened the doors of its new location with a grand opening party last week.
“We want to be like an old-school bookshop where it's very immersive and you can step off the street and disappear for 20 to 30 minutes if you want to,” said Drew Waldo, the owner of Lot 49.
Visitors to the store won’t find a table stacked with the latest New York Times bestsellers. Instead, the shop offers a curated selection of new and used books with an emphasis on modern and classic literary fiction, poetry, cultural and political histories, art books and miscellaneous under-the-radar genres.
"We have some conspiracy theory books, but nothing too wild," Waldo said.
The shop also carries a sizable selection of zines, books by self-published authors and works by local writers.
Lot 49 arrives in Fishtown amid a quiet indie bookshop revival in the neighborhood. It’s the third independent bookstore to open in the area since 2019, when The Head and the Hand opened its community-focused bookshop on Frankford Avenue. The following year, Harriett’s Bookshop opened on Girard, just a few blocks away from where Lot 49 now operates.
This recent proliferation of bookstores is not a citywide phenomenon. In Center City, where retail foot traffic was hit especially hard during the pandemic, some bookstores have been shutting down. In early 2022, revered downtown bookseller Joseph Fox Bookshop closed its doors at 17th and Sansom streets after 70 years in business, followed by the closure of Shakespeare & Co. at 16th and Walnut a few months later.
Fishtown – a much more residential neighborhood whose retailers are less dependent on office workers and commuters than downtown businesses are – has seen dramatic increases in real estate development, new businesses opening and the median income of its residents in recent years.
“I wanted to be somewhere busier,” Waldo said about his store's new location. “Part of what motivated us to move here was all the foot traffic in this neighborhood. Even if you don't like some of it, that's what’ll pay the bills and make it possible to keep posting stuff and keep selling books.”
Waldo did not originally set out to open a bookstore. In fact, this is the first time he’s ever even worked in one. The idea came to him in 2020 after the pandemic cost him his job as a bike courier, giving him the opportunity to rethink his professional existence and, of course, read more books. He was reading a biography of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the 1950s beat poet who helped open City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, when he felt inspired to give the bookselling business a shot here in Philadelphia.
After testing the waters with pop-up shops and selling books online, Waldo teamed up with the owners of an art house building in South Philly that was home to a storied punk rock and metal DIY music venue called Disgraceland until 2009. In 2021, Lot 49 took over the building’s first floor as a bookstore and record shop that also hosted music shows and other events.
As the anxiety and city-mandated restrictions of the pandemic started winding down, people were ready to start filing into spaces like Lot 49 – especially if it meant seeing a band play for the first time in a year or two.
While the pandemic was not exactly kind to retailers and independent businesses in general, the first two years of Covid-19 were a surprisingly good time for the book business.
In 2020, U.S. book publishers saw an 8.2% increase in sales over the previous year, followed by another 8.9% increase in 2021. While big companies like Amazon fared well during the pandemic, people also increasingly flocked to small booksellers – whether online via indie-friendly websites like Bookshop.org or in person as brick-and-mortar bookshops like Harriett's in Fishtown pivoted to sidewalk sales and socially distanced shopping.
Instead of dying off over the last three years, the number of independent bookstores in the U.S. actually grew to its highest in over 20 years, according to membership data from the American Booksellers Association.
“I think there’s more of a demand for this than people think there is," Waldo said. "There is more of a niche out there for stores like this.”
While the warp-speed pace of Fishtown's ongoing development boom sometimes makes him nervous, Waldo is mostly excited about the neighborhood his bookshop now calls home – especially the area immediately surrounding the shop at the intersection of Girard and Montgomery avenues.
Just a few blocks from Penn Treaty Park, Lot 49's new store is surrounded by what Waldo considers to be other cool, independent businesses that cater to Fishtown's creative class and fortify the neighborhood's cultural credibility amid an influx of new residents. Two doors down from Lot 49 sits Milkcrate Cafe, the 14-year-old hybrid coffee-and-vinyl-record shop that opened a second location in West Philly last week. Across the street, there's the boutique guitar maker DiPinto Guitars and Elma, a small Italian BYOB restaurant opened a few months ago by former Suraya sous chef James Nardone.
"Me and James from across the street are really excited for our slice of the neighborhood," said Waldo. "Oh, and it's a lot closer to my house in Port Richmond."