Every now and again, Qwerty Philly likes to look back on some of the people, places and things that have made Philadelphia’s literary community what it is today. For our first post in this series, writer David W. Brown writes about Larry Robin and Robin’s Bookstore.
In early January 2017, a packed auditorium of writers, poets, authors and activists gathered as part of a national observance celebrating all of our First Amendment rights to use the power of the pen to express who we are, what we care about and what we’ll fight for.
In the midst of that crowd was an icon of Philadelphia’s literary community, Larry Robin, the longtime proprietor of Robin’s Bookstore, which for years was one of the city’s hubs for literary activism.
Now in his 70’s, Robin took in the gathering with both pride and wistfulness. “Here I was at this event, organized by a group called Writer’s Resist, and I realized that I had absolutely nothing to do with pulling this group of talented, eclectic, creative and activist-minded writers together,” Robin says.
There was no regret in his voice, only a realization that the groundwork which he’s had an active hand in for nearly half a century, was flourishing without his active touch.
THE RISE AND FALL
Robin’s Bookstore was originally established by Larry Robin’s grandfather in 1936. Larry joined the family business in 1960 and, at the time, was one of 20 bookstores in the city. Through the years, Robin’s Bookstore distinguished itself as a magnet for some of the greatest writers and activists of our time. And almost every Philadelphia based author could count on Robin’s bookstore to support their work by hosting literary events, hand selling copies of their books and being a friend to anybody who worked with the written word.
“At the end of my book tour for my first book Black, White Other, back in 1994, I did a reading at Robin’s,” recalls Mt. Airy based author and journalist Lise Funderburg. “ It was standing room only, with a crowd ranging from my high school French teacher to a brilliant but off-kilter stranger who asked great questions. Of all the events I’d done for Black, White, Other, this one probably meant the most to me. To be so warmly welcomed home by the heart of the city’s book-loving community—what more could a writer ask for?” she asks.
“Larry Robin worked hard for us all,” adds Lorene Cary, award-winning author of If Sons Then Heirs and Black Ice. “We tend to use the word ‘patriot’ for Americans who advocate for individual liberties and defense, but Larry Robin, who put the independent in independent bookstore, embodies a life of fervent, passionate, and active patriotism.
Sadly, all of that hard work, energy and literary ‘patriotism’ wasn’t enough to shelter Robin from the changing nature of the book business. A combination of aggressive, big box booksellers and the advent of the Internet (particularly online retail sales) was ultimately the undoing of Robin’s, along with hundreds of other independent bookstores throughout the country.
“There was a time where the bookstore was designed to be a place of interaction and dialogue,” Robin says. “ A customer would come into a store and typically not know what they were looking for. That curiosity would initiate a connection with another human being that could connect interests, passions as well as conflicting opinions and views,” he continues. “Now, readers are more likely to look up a title online, read an electronic review and the website can even suggest similar titles that might appeal based on that one selection. There’s no human interaction with that exchange.”
That lack of interaction, or maybe the perceived need that interaction was not essential to the literary experience, probably had an even larger influence on why Robin’s Bookstore found it couldn’t compete in this new reality. “There was a time when we stopped doing book signings because most of the folks who would come, would buy the book online,” Robin says. “Being just a gathering place simply became a model that couldn’t be financially sustained.”
But if money was the only motivation, Larry Robin’s involvement in the literary community would have ended some years ago. However, he found ways to preserve and promote Philadelphia’s rich literary heritage in ways that went far beyond the four walls of his legendary bookstore.
Well before he shuttered the shop in 2012, Larry and his wife Sandy founded the Moonstone Arts Center in 1981, which was established to create programs based on the philosophy that, “…the arts, creativity and imagination are essential aspects of life and learning.” Moonstone operated then, as now, on the second floor of the building that once housed Robin’s Bookstore, near the corner of 12th and Sansom Streets in Center City.
The Arts Center began as Moonstone Readings at Robin’s Bookstore and, at the time, brought together writers with the reading public who might not otherwise connect with one another.
From Moonstone, the Celebration of Black Writing emerged which started back in 1985 as a Sunday afternoon party for African-American writers residing in and near Philadelphia. Now, in partnership with Art Sanctuary – the Philadelphia nonprofit founded by Lorene Cary – the event has grown into one of the nation’s largest celebrations highlighting Black writers. The event has attracted and honored such literary giants as Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni and Ntozake Shange.
In 1987 and for the subsequent eight years, Moonstone presented the Paul Robeson Festival to celebrate the man and honor his work.
Last year, Robin and Moonstone celebrated the 20th Anniversary of Poetry Ink: 100 Poets Reading as part of the Philly Loves Poetry Festival which represents one of the largest celebrations of this literary art form. Clearly, the shuttering of Robin’s Bookstore was not the end for this literary champion.
From Larry Robin’s perspective, the purpose of the bookstore is to provide a space for people to engage with one another. Whether that interaction begins online or within the aisles where physical encounters occur, the key is to embrace the connections, even if they’re not always pleasant.
“Even if what you’re hearing makes you uncomfortable,” Robin says, “the way you deal with that discomfort is not to stop it or to find ways to shut it down. Rather the key is to engage with it and try to understand it.”
Developing that understanding represents the building block of growing communities – whether they’re online or in the confines of a brick-and-mortar store.
Which brings it all back to the packed auditorium of writers resisting the forces that would seek to divide communities struggling to hold themselves together. Whether those who came were drawn by a social media posting or a casual conversation enticing them to come, it was clear that the legacy of Larry Robin had a hand in pulling them into the room. Whether they knew it or not, it was the spirit of activism through the written word that served as the common thread stitching together this diverse array of talent that afternoon.
At that, Larry Robin settled into his seat with a sense of satisfaction and simply smiled at what he had brought forth.
David W. Brown is an Assistant Professor of Instruction at Temple University’s School of Media and Communication teaching the public relations major in the Department of Strategic Communications.