by Barbara Sherf
Several weeks ago, Greg Williams, longtime owner of Walk a Crooked Mile, a used bookstore at the Mt. Airy SEPTA train station, wrote a letter to the Chestnut Hill Local, asking residents if there was any interest in exploring options for the former Borders Books site at Germantown Avenue and Bethlehem Pike.
Since the letter was published, about 60 residents have contacted him with interest in seeing something in the space. On Oct. 6, 20 of those individuals gathered at the Church of St. Martin-in- the-Fields in Chestnut Hill to discuss a myriad of options.
“I guess I’m the instigator and Glenn (Bergman, general manager of Weavers Way Co-op) has been pushing this too,” Williams said upon opening the two-hour discussion. “Our ideas together are stronger than any one idea.”
He said he and Bergman had tried to contact the realty company, Fameco, but their phone calls have not been returned.
“Rumors are that rent is anywhere from $17,000 to $45,000 a month and that a Goddard Learning Center may be going into the space,” he said, addressing the numerous gasps in the room. “That’s right, there should be a big gasp.”
He then posed several questions to the audience, among them “Do you think books have a life and do bookstores have a life?”
There were varying opinions on the state of the book industry, but there was consensus on the need for a common space in Chestnut Hill for gathering and supporting the arts.
“We need a place for performances, used books and a gathering place,” said Edward Sargent, of Chestnut Hill. “I am a user of books and I can’t imagine not having a place in Chestnut Hill that sells books. It just seems strange not to have a bookstore at all.”
Jeanne Allen, of East Mt. Airy and a retired film professor from Temple University, shared her vision of a space that had a screening room, a used bookstore and performance space under one roof.
“People would say, ‘I’ll just go up there and see what’s going on tonight,’” Allen said.
David Baskin of Mt. Airy played the cynic throughout the evening.
“I love the lure and romance of books,” he said, “but I’m a pragmatist, and I’ve always tended to look at the business side of things. That’s why Borders went out of business, because you have to sell a hell of a lot of $2 cups of coffee at the end of the day.
“The selling of books is a difficult gig. I think it will cycle around and come back, but I’m not sure I’ll be alive. Until the business comes back, I would proceed cautiously. Romance doesn’t pay the bills.”
Mt. Airy resident Peter Javsicas talked about looking to the East Falls Village group as a model.
“They are all about an open university model for entertainment and cultural events. It’s an exciting group,” he said.
Jonathan Sternberg talked of a void he has felt since Borders closed in January 2010.
“I don’t own a TV – I would spend several evenings each week at Borders, and I miss that human contact,” Sternberg said.
“I believe deeply in community,” Williams added. “It’s crucial to us as human beings. We need to do a better job taking care of community and being more proactive.
“What makes Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy so special to me is the belief in community. We hold 25 concerts (at Walk a Crooked Mile) a year and 10 yard sales and that stuff is more important to me than selling books.”
He noted that he doesn’t see Kindle and electronic books as the enemy.
“I think they are part of the creative flow, and we need to be hitching a wagon onto all of that to create a community that is financially supported by the word,” Williams said.
Jim Harris, who writes for the Local and performs at Walk a Crooked Mile talked of the need for a community performance space.
“I’ve played there for 10 years, and everyone who has played there has embraced that opportunity,” Harris said. “It’s a very valuable place for young people and community building. I think whatever comes about could have books, lectures and offer the gamut of arts in the Northwest community. I believe we can do it if we want it.”
Caryl Johnson liked the idea of a co-operative center versus a business model.
“I would love to see a “conversation parlor” where there are no computers and you can drink coffee and have a conversation and then go into a performance space,” she said.
Debra Cooper, of Mt. Airy, wanted to reach out to some established entities in the community.
“I’d like to see the Mt. Airy Learning Tree and others here to be part of this discussion,” Cooper said. “I can see private offices in part of that space that would welcome a steady stream of customers.”
The consensus that formed toward the end of the meeting was that a group should be set up to develop a vision statement for the space. It was also suggested that Williams assign tasks to individuals.
“No matter how cynical some folks may be about books, the community center concept is something people will want to get around,” Bergman said. “I still see this as a business model going in and in my head it still is a used bookstore.”
Contacted by phone, Eileen Reilly, the retail recruiter representing several civic groups in Chestnut Hill, said she would be happy to help the group find space for a common center, but she felt that the Borders site was not viable at this time.
“I have been in discussions with Fameco representatives, and they tell me they are deep in negotiations with a prospect,” she said. “While the deal has not been finalized, they are really close. I cannot confirm what it is, but unless another entity is ready to step in with an offer at this point, I think the Borders site will be taken off the market very soon.”
Reilly said she supported the efforts to form a community meeting space, and she would be happy to help find the right property.
“We have a number of large vacant properties in this market,” she added. “If they can get far enough along with organizing and funding this concept, finding the venue will be easy.”
Contacted after the meeting, Greg Welsh, president of the Chestnut Hill Business Association, confirmed that a new tenant was going into the space soon. He heard it was a corporate daycare center, which did not mesh his vision for the space.
“Buses will pull up, children will go in, and that is the amount of foot traffic you’ll see there,” Welsh said. “It’s a shame, but if it’s a viable tenant and is zoned for that activity there is nothing we can do about it. I’d love to see more of what this group had brainstormed about and had put forth a proposal similar to this early on.”
Welsh had an architect draw up plans to use the second floor space as a town hall of sorts, housing the Chestnut Hill Community Association, Chestnut Hill Business Association, Chestnut Hill Local, state representatives offices and other nonprofit entities. He then envisioned an indoor/outdoor restaurant on the ground floor, along with some small retailers, like a new or used bookstore and coffeehouse.
“However the economy was at an all-time low, and it was difficult to get investors and developers to the same table to see that vision,” Welsh said. “Some of these people are very independent and wished to remain that way.
“As a business person, I understand the harsh realities of putting something together like that in this economy.”
Welsh said he would support the idea of a community center somewhere else in Chestnut Hill, but at this point he felt quite confident it would not be at the former Borders site at the top of the hill.
Williams was planning another meeting in the next three to four weeks to narrow the discussion. Anyone interested should contact him at email@example.com or 215- 242-0854 to be notified of the meeting date and location.