Defying the Amazon onslaught, Philly publisher opens bookstore in Kensington

The Head & the Hand Books will be a place to “look at works that aren’t glowing back at you.”

Sneak peak of the storefront on Coral Street in Kensington

Linda Gallant Moore

Last week’s perilous news that Penn Book Center was closing seemed a reminder of Amazon’s inevitable death blow for all brick-and-mortar bookstores. And yet, Philly is seeing something of a groundswell among literary placemakers, from new indie booksellers like Uncle Bobbie’s in Germantown and A Novel Idea in East Passyunk to the burgeoning hub known as Blue Stoop.

In a few weeks, you can add another name to the list.

Philly craft publisher The Head & the Hand has signed a lease to open its own storefront on the Frankford Avenue corridor in Kensington. At a preview on Wednesday night, they welcomed a few dozen friends and neighbors to their cozy storefront within Fireball Printing‘s new facility, where newly built wooden shelves will soon be stocked with contemporary fiction, children’s books and other genres.

Linda Gallant Moore, editorial director for the 8-year-old small press, said that the bookshop will be grounded in community programming.

“There are successful bookstores that are ‘books and’” she said, citing the popular comic book/coffee shop Amalgam two blocks south on Frankford Avenue. “Sometimes it’s a coffee shop, sometimes it’s community minded. They’re all about inviting the neighborhood in.”

The kids' corner is waiting to be filled with books

Linda Gallant Moore

Planting roots on this stretch feels right for the press at this time.

Founded in 2011 by writer/urban farmer/trash czar Nic Esposito — his dayjob is heading Mayor Jim Kenney’s anti-litter cabinet — the Head & the Hand began in Fishtown, then had a stint at the historic Physick House in Society Hill. But since 2016, it has been without a physical home.

A few years ago, this new location might have been seen as an odd choice for a fledgling bookshop, despite rapid gentrification to the south. The Lehigh Avenue corridor has been one of the last bastions for the neighborhood’s industrial glory years.

But on Coral Street at Lehigh, the long-delayed Kensington Community Food Co-op is set to open its doors this month. The bones of townhomes are erecting in every direction — a development surge coming at a time when the city has been closing several homeless encampments nearby in an effort to combat an opioid crisis that continues to beset the surrounding neighborhood.

The storefront, pre-shelves

Linda Gallant Moore

Gallant Moore says the Head & the Hand is still in the getting-to-know-the-neighborhood period. At Wednesday’s preview, they took suggestions on what they’d like to see in the space — a process they plan to continue after their soft opening on Friday, May 3.

Head & The Hand Books plans to stock plenty of fiction, with an emphasis on local and small presses, including local lit mags like Apiary and the Barrelhouse. There’ll be children’s books galore, and a smattering of true crime, poetry and Philly history.

The store will also serve as a space for the press’ core mission of publishing local authors and providing writers workshops. It helps that their printer, Fireball, is now also their landlord and neighbor.

“It’s funny how bookstores spark conversations,” Gallant Moore said. “People came forward to offer they’d come read to kids for storytime. These are the things you can’t expect or predict, but you hope for.”

The small press is taking suggestions for what books to carry.

Linda Gallant Moore

Head & the Hand hopes the food co-op will draw traffic to the bookstore during its new hours, tentatively Thursday through Sunday, and they’ve already worked out a 15 percent discount on bookstore merch for co-op members.

“The hope is that the bookstore functions as a way to bring in a different revenue stream to keep the press going and to serve the neighborhood,” she said. “We’re going to have books, but we’re going to have programming that the neighborhood will really like.”

Plans are to hold a soft opening on the first Friday in May. The bookstore will continue to operate as a non-profit like the press itself, under the fiscal umbrella of the Culture Trust of Greater Philadelphia. Proprietors consider their 8-month lease in the space a wait-and-see period.

The Head & the Hand Books joins a growing cadre of independent booksellers. Even multi-city indie chain Shakespeare & Co., which opened a branch in Rittenhouse last year, is making the model work by emphasizing the community elements of the space. Amazon or not, Gallant Moore says bookstores are still a unifying force — as much as the physical books themselves.

“We can’t quit them,” she said. “In our world of intensely digitized experiences, it’s a retreat to hold paper in your hand and look at works that aren’t glowing back at you.”