It has become so easy to order books online that one would think it must be impossible for a small bookstore to survive. Yet this one does.
For people who still do read books, it has become so easy and convenient to order them from Amazon or from book publishers' websites that one would think it must be impossible for a small, independent bookstore to survive. Yet, Big Blue Marble Bookstore, which opened in 2005 at 551 Carpenter Lane in West Mt. Airy, has managed to pull off this seemingly impossible magic act.
Eighteen years ago, when the behemoth Borders Book Store always seemed to be beehive busy in Chestnut Hill, Sheila Allen Avelin, a former Friends Select High School English teacher, began her David-vs.-Goliath journey by opening Big Blue Marble next door to Weavers Way Co-op in Mt. Airy.
Avelin named her new business Big Blue Marble as an homage to “The Blue Marble,” the iconic photo of Earth taken by members of the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972. There was also a PBS children’s television series called “The Big Blue Marble,” which aired from 1974 to 1983. It told stories about children from all over the world.
Avelin has always been a bibliophile. (An English professor once told me that the definition of a bibliophile is a person who finds it absolutely impossible to go into a bookstore and not buy at least one book.) She learned to read on her own at age 4 while growing up in Washington, D.C., although her mother is from Radnor on suburban Philly's Main Line.
She found jobs in bookstores, and after graduating from Harvard University, attended the University of Pennsylvania to earn her Master’s degree in English. She taught English literature at Friends Select School in Center City from 1999 until 2002, when she and her partner, Alexandra (“Alex”) Volin Avelin moved from Mt. Airy to Wisconsin so that Alex could pursue her Master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin. (Alex later became the English department chair at the Julia R. Masterman School and now coaches teachers for the Philadelphia School District.)
Although Borders closed its doors in January 2010, Big Blue Marble still had to compete with Amazon and other internet giants, not to mention that so many young people now do their reading on phones, not books, newspapers or magazines. According to wordsrated.com, which tracks statistics about bookstores in the U.S., the number of bookstores in the U.S. over the past decade has dropped precipitously from 16,819 to 10,800. And of course, much of this decline was during the pandemic.
“The pandemic was weird,” Avelin told us. “Some months were comparable to pre-pandemic because there was panic buying at the start, and then lots of buying jigsaw puzzles since people were at home. But there were more bad months, similar to what we experienced during the recession of 2008 and 2009, but it didn't last as long. Christmas came and was good. Overall there were seven or eight bad months, not in a row. We never closed fully.”
Avelin pivoted to “pick up and delivery” after the pandemic began and was 100 percent that way for a time, only open a couple of hours a day. “It was very difficult,” she said. “I was very happy when the city reopened in mid-June, 2021.”
Big Blue Marble is still not back to pre-pandemic levels. They used to have open mic events often, but have only had one since the pandemic. “People do not come out as much as they used to,” said Avelin. “We are figuring out what works. We used to have three different book clubs at different times, but we stopped.”
Local authors who want to host book events can sometimes bring people in.
“Lots of local people are writing self-published books now that they are retired,” she said. “And we have a greater commitment to special orders. That is our bread and butter.”
According to Philadelphia magazine, Big Blue Marble has the city's “Best Kids' Book Section.” About 40 percent of their sales are children's books. They also specialize in “queer science fiction.”
Barb G., of Ambler, wrote on yelp.com in a typical five-star review of Big Blue Marble, “Nice neighborhood bookstore!! They'll order anything they don't have in stock and will have it in a couple of days. They worked out a great curbside program during the pandemic. I've been shopping with them for three or four years. It's so nice to have an indie brick-and-mortar bookstore to support!”
For more information, call 215-844-1870 or visit bigbluemarblebooks.com. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.