Black Lawrence Press
March 30, 2010

Big Jar Books, A Requiem

One of the reasons that Black Lawrence Press is working to support independent bookstores is so that gems like Big Jar Books won’t wither in the shadows of big box stores and giant web retailers. Thanks to Nora Fussner for this requiem.

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Rest in peace, Big Jar Books. A clean, well-lit used bookstore on Philadelphia’s Second Street, right in the heart of Old City, it was also, in my intellectually rapacious youth, the only place I knew of in town to buy McSweeney’s Quarterly and other small-press books, in the days before McSweeney’s got a shout-out in Juno. Coffee in the front, a couple of busted wing chairs in the back, and in between, everything the readers of the city had left for you to discover.

In my memory the store was 50% literature, 25% philosophy, and 25% film theory, but that’s probably idealizing it. I’m sure there were copies of Who Moved My Cheese? among the Delmore Schwartz and Pauline Kael, but shoved at the bottom of some shelf, anomalous. Since the shop is no longer around to defend itself, I’m going to go all the way and say that each book (its price penciled inside the front cover in a little jar) was not cast-off by some poseur who didn’t know its true worth, but earmarked by a kind of Divine Librarian (perhaps one of three, a mythic trio who catalogue, loan, and due-date stamp your Life Library) for a particular volume to stick out of the shelf just so on the day you decide to stop in. Freshman year you read Robert Coover for the first time and lo, here is A Night at the Movies. Or a literature professor leans back in a swoon talking about Katherine Anne Porter: her Collected Stories can be had for a song, brandishing the old rose-bedecked cover on public transportation the mark of the enlightened.

The last time I was home visiting the family for the holidays, the space had been transformed into one of those clothing stores for too-skinny women selling $65 t-shirts and $200 pairs of jeans. My mother took a business card. “How could you?”  I hissed, planning to come back with a basket full of rotten tomatoes to hurl at the front window. “They have some cute things,” she replied. Oh, sure, without clothing we’d be arrested; but without books we’d stumble from work to home back to work again, unaware there was anything greater awaiting us.

Rest in peace, Ritz Filmbill. The summer I patronized Big Jar Books the most, I had an internship around the corner at a small magazine (barely more than a brochure) distributed for free in the neighborhood’s three independent theaters. Besides descriptions of the films, the Filmbill included restaurant reviews, movie-themed horoscopes, and the occasional trivia contest, questions for which I occasionally got to write. Mostly, though, I was gathering images for the website archive, a mind-numbing task made bearable by the free movie passes I was given and the long lunches I was encouraged to take, which frequently included detours to Big Jar Books. I wasn’t paid for the internship, only given a sporadic travel stipend, but it was one of those college summers when my dad was still happy to pay for my train fare and I spent the checks on books or, perversely, movies at other theaters. The Ritz theaters have since been bought by Landmark and the Filmbill reduced to a single-leaf broadsheet with descriptions of films currently playing, and little else. They still have $6 screenings on Tuesdays, but they also have all Landmark’s unsaveable receipt-like tickets, instead of card-stock.

Rest in peace, summer jobs that didn’t mean anything, that were about beefing up a resume for a future that seemed, in those days, impossibly far away. In the meantime, upon arrival at 11 a.m., I was not infrequently greeted with, “You’re here early” and was practically dissuaded from exerting myself. What a contrast to the overworked/underpaid not-for-profit positions of my immediate post-college years. Oh, sure, summer in downtown Philadelphia smells like baked urine, but that didn’t keep me from walking, wandering, letting the stories I’d stumbled upon tell me which way to go.

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The very excellent Book Trader is still in existence, also on 2nd Street, moved from its former home on South. They give store credit in exchange for your old books and are conscientious enough to compliment your selections at check-out. Another disappointment of my adolescence was having my 18-pound tome rung up at Border’s without comment. I always wanted to say to the clerk, “I’m really going to read this, you know,” even if it took me seven years or more to get around to Gravity’s Rainbow or The Second Sex. At the Book Trader, they acknowledge your taste, and have a couple of beaten-down couches of their own, upstairs.

Nora Fussner is quickly approaching the completion of an MFA in fiction writing at Brooklyn College, at which point she’ll be available for all your proofreading/copyediting/dogsitting/ghosthunting needs.

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