Big thanks to the Philly Free Library for letting us bring a bike in.
In her diaries, Virginia Woolf writes about how her days are filled with reading, writing, entertaining guests and the occasional air raid. She frequently drops in references to riding her bike. Who knew? Imagine her, hair pulled into a tight, low bun, headed to the post office, perhaps to pick up books.
The arrival of the Indego bike share in Philadelphia last month, along with our summertime reading of Woolf’s diaries, prompted us to create this five-stop tour of the city’s literary highlights.
If you haven’t tried Indego yet, all you need to know is that there are two main ways to rent the bright blue bikes. The first is to sign up on Indego’s website (rideindego.com). For $15 a month, you can get unlimited rides for up to an hour. Or, you can stop by a bike dock, use a credit card, and for $4 you can ride for a half hour. You can pick up a bike at one spot and drop it off at another.
But those two wheels will only get you so far. We know booklovers need sustenance, too, so we’ve added places for quick bites and bookstores that still have soul. Get your Woolf on and get ready to be inspired by these literary hot spots.
Parkway Central Library of Philadelphia
1901 Vine St.
We all know and love it for its lending library, free Internet and air conditioning, but there is a surprising amount of art here, too. Now through October, Kay Healy’s “Lost and Found” exhibit is on display inside the H.O.M.E. Page Café. Inspired by real stories of people’s lost items, she created three-dimensional sewn and stuffed objects and gave them a home. At the top of the grand stairs are two pieces by Bob and Roberta Smith (aka Patrick Brill), “The MoMA Will Be Free” and “Creating Things.” Both works protest the cost of entrance fees to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In the spacious children’s library, originals of N.C. Wyeth’s book illustrations line the walls.
As for books, you will find a first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, illustrations by Beatrix Potter and the works of Charles Dickens in the Rare Books Department. Don’t miss Dickens’ stuffed raven, Grip. Head back to the children’s library for kids’ books from all over the world, written in many languages, including Italian, Filipino and Latin (if you’re really kickin’ it old school).
In the music room, listen to tunes on CDs, tapes and vinyl. You will find a large collection of sheet music from the Civil War era, and bound, complete works of composers. Upstairs is the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music, the largest of its kind, with more than 22,000 volumes. Conductors from all over the world only have to pay the price of postage to borrow these materials.
The Parkway library also houses the Automobile Reference Collection, one of the largest collections of materials about cars pictures, advertisements, manuals, license plates outside of Detroit.
The Book Corner, a bookstore run by the Friends of the Free Library, sits behind the Parkway library. Stop by and say hi to cats-in-residence Chaucer and Catticus Finch while you look through a large selection of used books. Each sale supports libraries. Think you know a lot? A “Literary Quizzo” is held on the first Thursday of the month. It’s BYOB.
If all this browsing makes you hungry, head to Sabrina’s, where breakfast is served all day. Try the stuffed French challah toast, a signature dish. Warning: It’s as big as your head, so you might want to split it with a friend.
Nearby Indego Bike Dock: 302 N. 19th St., Cool Bookstore: Book Corner, 311 N. 20th St., Quick Bite: Sabrina’s Cafe and Spencer’s Too, 1804 Callowhill St., Pedal time to next stop: 10-12 minutes
Edgar Allan Poe
National Historic Site, 532 N. Seventh St.
Author Edgar Allan Poe, known for creepy horror stories and for creating the detective story, spent six allegedly happy years of his life living in Philly, from 1838 to 1844. He, his young wife (and first cousin) Virginia Clemm Poe, and mother-in-law Maria Clemm, lived in five abodes in their six years here. After Poe earned the vast sum of $100 for his story “The Gold Bug,” he rented this brick house, the largest and nicest of their homes, at the corner of Seventh and Spring Garden streets.
The small site is packed with information about Poe’s life: orphaned by age 3, raised by foster parents with whom he didn’t get along, unsuccessful stints at the University of Virginia and West Point, and then marriage and literary success. Poe’s true love was poetry (destined by his name, no doubt), but he made more money from his stories. (He called the short story “the light artillery of the intellect,” but also said, “you must write what they want to read.”) He also dreamed of running a successful literary periodical, a dream that came true for short periods but always ended, as did much in his life, after financial failure.
His wife’s ongoing bad health and eventual death at age 24 from tuberculosis sent the author into cycles of drinking and moodiness. But two years after her death, he was on the verge of starting a new literary journal and marrying a (well-off) childhood sweetheart, when he died mysteriously during a visit to Baltimore.
The Poe home is open Friday to Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed from noon to 1). Park Ranger Joanne Schillizzi finishes her tour by taking you into the cellar (yes, it’s dark and slightly scary) and reciting from memory Poe’s story, “The Black Cat.” Her passion for Poe is contagious!
Nearby Indego Bike Dock: 802 Spring Garden St., Quick Bite: Silk City Diner, 435 Spring Garden St., for nibbles from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Perfect if you’re feeling peckish once upon a midnight dreary… Pedal time to next stop: 12-13 minutes
of Philadelphia, 1314 Locust St.
When librarian James Green tells the story of the founding of the Library Company of Philadelphia, you’d swear he was a FOB friend of Ben Franklin and that he had been there himself in 1731 when Franklin and his “Junto” club established what was once the largest public library in the country. Green has been with the Library Company for 32 years, and he’s part of the reason that history lives on at this historic institution.
Back in the 1730s, Franklin and friends liked to get together regularly and talk about ideas, and they enjoyed, according to Green, “the kind of reading that would improve their minds, their community and their position in the community.” This, says Green, “always came down to books.” The group tried to pool their individual collections into a makeshift library, but found themselves suffering from a common library problem: books weren’t being returned. So, they put some money into it and created what was called a “subscription library.” By organizing this way, they could then fine anyone who didn’t return a book (sound familiar?) and use the money to purchase more books.
Green thinks this was the first time that a library was set up in this manner. This, he says, was the original Franklin invention. “It was his first cultural invention. He was taking something that had been tried and failed and making it succeed, and it became the first public lending library in the world.”
The Library Company was the city’s main public library until the Free Library came into being around 1890. The Library Company for a time was located in a beautiful Frank Furness building at the corner of Juniper and Locust. That building was torn down in 1940 (yes, they put up a parking lot).
It moved into its current location in 1966, where it mainly serves as a research library, open to all. It no longer lends books. The collection includes medical information for lay people, author George Lippard, and African-American history (the latter forming the basis of a public exhibition running until June 27, “The Genius of Freedom”). Says Green: “All you need to come and see anything we have is a photo ID and a mission.”
Mission accomplished, check out the nearby Giovanni’s Room at 12th and Pine. The indie bookstore has been transformed into a Philly AIDS Thrift shop, which still features new and used LGBTQ fiction and non-fiction along with magazines, music, art and clothing.
Snack at cozy Toast, where you can get a yummy breakfast sandwich and a coffee, or go for a cold snack at Capogiro, if you can decide what flavor to get from the many varieties of gelato. Kiwi? Lychee? Rhubarb, anyone?
Nearby Indego Bike Dock: 213 S. 13th St., Cool Bookstore: Giovanni’s Room, 345 S. 12th St., Quick Bite: Toast, 1201 Spruce St., and Capogiro, 119 S. 13th St., Pedal time to next stop: 5-7 minutes
Rosenbach Museum and Library, 2008-2010 Delancey Place
Be honest. When you go into someone’s home for the first time, you immediately search for bookshelves. If they don’t have books, you may not be back. At the Rosenbach, you’ll come back again and again. Dr. Rosenbach’s library is just as he left it. There are two rooms; one devoted to English texts, such as Shakespeare and Jane Austen; the other to Americans, including the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Philliss Wheatley.
Across the hall is Modernist poet Marianne Moore’s complete Greenwich Village living room. It’s all there from couches and lamps to her personal library and elephant figurines. Included in the collection is her correspondence, so you can see what she and Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams wrote to each other. Don’t be surprised if baseball is mentioned. Moore was a huge Brooklyn Dodgers fan. There are also thousands of her photographs. One, hanging right outside the room, shows her tossing out the first ball at Yankee Stadium in 1968.
This week, the Rosenbach’s annual Bloomsday Festival gets underway. The celebration is named after the protagonist Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses, which takes place all in one day. This June 16, on the 2000 block of Delancey, fans of Ulysses will gather for readings of excerpts from the book from 3 to 7:30 p.m. Don’t miss actress Drucie McDaniel’s reading of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy; it’s a crowd pleaser every year.
If you’re confused by Ulysses, you are not alone; the Brits were convinced it was written in spy code. Through September, Rosenbach is displaying an exhibit, “Deciphering Ulysses: A Playful Introduction to Joyce’s Novel.” On view is a renowned cryptographer’s copy of Ulysses, with his handwritten notes in the margins.
The museum is also a research library. If you want to see a rare book or have a research project in mind, make an appointment with librarian (and Indego enthusiast) Elizabeth Fuller.
Hands-on Tours, held Fridays and Sundays at 3 p.m., let you touch selected pieces in the collection. Regular house tours begin at the top of the hour Tuesday through Sunday during museum hours.
Need a nosh break? Stop by Pamcakes, where Pam Kingsland creates beautiful cupcakes on site. Try the Triple Chocolate Threat. It may only last about three seconds, but they’ll be some sweet moments. Nearby you’ll find the independent Joseph Fox Bookshop for books by many local authors amid a wide range of top-quality fiction and nonfiction, plus an extensive architecture section. Pick up Julie Lorch’s Where to Bike Philadelphia for ideas for routes for your next bike tour.
Nearby Indego bike dock: 1911 Walnut St., Cool bookstore: Joseph Fox Bookshop, 1724 Sansom St., Quick bite: Pamcakes, 404 S. 20th Street., Pedal time to next stop: 8-9 minutes
University of Pennsylvania Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Van Pelt Library, 3420 Walnut St.
Our jaunt around town visiting literary landmarks has shown us that that wily Ben Franklin had his fingers in a lot of pies, and the University of Pennsylvania is no exception after all, he did help found the school. Head up to the sixth floor of Van Pelt, Penn’s main library, where the Rare Book & Manuscript Library has been housed since 1962, turn left as you exit the elevator, and there again is evidence of Franklin’s influence, this time in the form of what’s affectionately called “the Ben desk.” The old wooden desk is encased in a small glass room, complete with antique teapot and a walking stick that was a gift from Lafayette. It stands just outside the doors of the Henry Charles Lea Library, a spectacular two-story, wood-paneled library transplanted in 1925 from the original Lea home at 20th and Walnut.
Rare Book & Manuscript Library visitors can actually begin their journey online. The Kislak Center website (library.upenn.edu/kislak) is a portal to view the holdings. Start there, and then follow up in person. Says Library Director David McKnight: “I encourage the public to come to view the exhibitions and even wander around the floor and enjoy the ambiance and the view.” There is an expansive campus and city view from this airy sixth-floor perch. Current exhibits include modern Japanese art books; posters, programs and photos from Philadelphia’s Savoy Company, and “The Image Affair: Dreyfus in the Media, 1894-1906.” A smaller case holds an exhibit of T.S. Eliot’s books and manuscripts celebrating the 100th anniversary of the publication of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
At one end of the floor is the Furness Memorial Shakespeare Library, a huge and ever-growing collection of books and monographs by and about the bard. One floor down, there’s a modest collection of incunabula, books that were printed (as opposed to handwritten) before 1500. From Shakespeare to the history of chemistry, from 18th and 19th century printed sheet music to the Eugene Ormandy collection, to over 500 boxes documenting the career of Marian Anderson, this is a collection to be reckoned with.
It’s not surprising that a rare book library is full of antiquities, but it is surprising that in this case, so many of them are so available and accessible. Says McKnight: “One of our greatest attributes is our willingness to provide direct, hands-on access to our rare and special collections both in the classrooms and for researchers in our reading room.” Members of the public can use the collection after presenting ID at the door downstairs.
Shake out your brain after all this scholarly immersion with a trip to Federal Donuts. The crunchy fried chicken and the sugary treats will quickly clear your mind, but if that’s not sufficient, take a few steps to the magazine and chocolate shop Avril 50, where you can get an iced coffee with cubes made from frozen coffee that won’t water down your drink. Thus fortified, head around the corner to Penn Book Center, which has for years been offering an alternative selection to that of the official Penn Bookstore. Currently on display at the Book Center: Fun, colorful books about mathematics for adults and children hard to beat the nerd appeal here!
Nearby Indego Bike Dock: 125 S. 36th St., Cool Bookstore: Penn Book Center, 130 S. 34th St., Quick Bite: Federal Donuts, 3428 Sansom St., Avril 50, 3406 Sansom St., Pedal time to next stop: Rest easy. Your tour is complete.