Shelia Avelin, owner of the Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Mt. Airy.

Shelia Avelin, owner of the Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Mt. Airy.

by Jeremy Jones

In 2005, with a lot of research and census tract data in her quiver, Sheila Avelin, a former Friends Select High School English teacher, literally made book on her convictions, her community and her mission. She opened a modestly appointed book store in Mt. Airy, next to Weavers Way Co-op, at 551 Carpenter St., while fully aware giant bookstore chains were thriving all around her, including Borders in Chestnut Hill.

Avelin named her new venture Big Blue Marble Bookstore, taking inspiration from “The Blue Marble,” the seminal photo of Earth, so named by members of the crew on the Apollo 17, in 2007; and the PBS children’s television series, “The Big Blue Marble,” which aired from 1974 to 1983, and included stories about children around the world and encouraged inter-cultural communication.

“I wanted a name that had that sense of being globally conscious, environmental and playful,” said Avelin. “And it seemed to capture what we wanted people to associate with the store.”

A year and a half after Big Blue Marble Bookstore made its debut, Chestnut Hill Borders folded, but the little indie-that-could was standing tall and established with Avelin at the helm. She had successfully achieved her goal: “to meet a need for smart, thoughtfully chosen books that would appeal to a multicultural, multi ethnic, progressive neighborhood;” the neighborhood she lives in and the community she knows well.

“If it’s something that’s on the New York Times Bestseller List, we don’t necessarily get a lot of interest,” said Avelin. “Books on the IndieBound Bestseller List tend to be strong best sellers.

As noted on its web site, IndieBound is “a product of ongoing collaborations between the independent bookstore members of the American Booksellers Association … and is all about independent bookstores and the power of ‘local first’ shopping. Independent bookstores have always occupied a special place in communities. There, you can just be, learn openly, share freely, be inspired and breathe deeply.”

“This is a place where you can just be,” said Big Blue Marble’s general manager Jennifer Woodfin, “We are really happy to be here, and we survive because of the huge outpouring of support from our customers.”

Here, as in most independently owned bookstores, customers feel that their presence and patronage make them feel part of a larger picture – to know their choices make a difference and that others are working toward the same goals. The fact that Big Blue Marble is the only book store in Philadelphia carrying Yolanda Wisher’s book of poetry, “Monk Eats an Afro,” is a testament to that.

The bookshop has 40-50 sections, appealing to a wide range of interests, including woman-centered pregnancy and parenting; sustainable living; lesbian/gay; African-American and Jewish studies; feminist science fiction; literary graphic novels and fun fiction.

There are impressively thorough and diverse sections for children, divided by age and type – preschool to high school.

“Our young adult section is very strong right now,” said Avelin. And the “kids’ section” won the 2007 Best of Philly award in Philadelphia Magazine.

Ongoing book club discussions (free to the public), book signings, special events, writers’ workshops, a mini free library and an annual “Kids Literary Festival” are just some of the happenings at Big Blue Marble. All of the writers and poets teaching classes have MFAs and are published or about to be published.

Not only did Avelin want her bookshop “to be a community center for book lovers,” all her staff are book lovers as well; each with a special focus or favorite genre which makes it easier for them to guide you when you are looking.

“We match people with books,” said Avelin. “One of the best ways for readers to figure out what to read next is to talk to someone. That’s what we do.”

Even though upstairs there is the reminder of high technology, with Wi-Fi, and outside there is the herald of space travel, with “The Blue Marble” flag, inside this little shop around the corner, the unchanging essence of what’s truly at heart is neighbors, books and friends.