Books Take Stage In A Former Theater In Port Richmond
By Devon McReynolds
Published by HiddenCityphila.org
March 7, 2013
This whole block here—every building was a store,” says Connie Jesiolowska, a lifelong Port Richmond resident, of Richmond Street. “It was a Center City type street. You came here for everything.”
Port Richmond Books is a repurposed relic of the neighborhood’s heyday. Originally built as a silent movie theater one hundred years ago, the bookstore is one of the rare establishments in the neighborhood providing an outlet for culture and entertainment in a clubhouse atmosphere.
Greg Gillespie opened Port Richmond Books in 2005, after property taxes skyrocketed on the South Philadelphia storage location he shared with Jay and Dee Kogan of the Society Hill Playhouse. The staggering 200,000 volumes in Gillespie’s current collection span several rooms with charmingly haphazard organization, conducive to exploring, getting lost, and getting spooked—Gillespie has reported several instances of paranormal activity. It’s Port Richmond’s answer to the Library at Alexandria, if in Alexandria, bibliophiles drank whiskey while handling rare first-editions.
But just as notable as the sprawling, maze-like shelves and towering stacks of books are the details of the building itself.
Built by architect E. Wilson Allen, designer of the Philadelphia homes of John Coltrane and Paul Robeson, the Richmond Theatre opened in 1913. From the street, “RICHMOND” is carved into the concrete façade, still solidly intact. The theater held 1,026 seats, arranged in deeply sloped, stadium-style seating. In what is now the main library and reading area of the bookstore, the curved arch that would have framed the original stage and movie screen now dramatically frames an alcove filled with books. The original Moeller organ, which was used to accompany the silent movies, lies dormant in the musty basement—the theater’s former orchestra pit—smothered under rubble.
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Thanks to THS Member Steve Tepperman for passing this on!