After 70 years in business, second-generation owner-operators of Joseph Fox Bookshop say they are closing January 29. With business not returning to pre-pandemic levels and the time needed to run the store, Michael Fox and his wife Judi are ready to enjoy their free time.
“I’m old enough to feel it was time to retire,” said Michael Fox, 69. “I feel sad for my customers, I am. I feel sad for the city, that they are losing a good bookstore.
Located at 1724 Sansom St., Joseph Fox stood out from the big box stores with carefully curated shelves – featuring the best art, poetry, fiction and non-fiction titles – and knowledgeable staff. which could help you find the perfect read for a history buff or an atmospheric winter romance for yourself.
“We don’t have self-help books, we don’t have computer books, and we don’t have a lot of popular fiction,” said Fox, who took over the store in 1998 after his death. from his father. (Don’t worry, they have the latest Sally Rooney in stock.)
Named after its founder, the bookstore opened in the basement of 1724 Sansom Street in 1951. Fox described his father as having a near-obsession with literature although he never got his high school diploma.
He said he didn’t know much about what his father did before he opened the bookstore except for a deployment to Guam during World War II – coincidentally, he built a library there.
Joseph Fox would marry Madeline in 1940, opening the shop more than a decade later, which would become a family affair. Madeline would devote herself to creating a sturdy children’s section, which today takes the form of a nook decorated with simple cardboard cutouts, including Peppa Pig and Eloise.
The couple would create a cultural institution together, according to their son. A basement that could have been a desolate space has been transformed into a vibrant oasis for book lovers looking for something off the beaten path.
Like an art dealer, Joseph was obsessed with his quest to stock the best and newest books on architecture, art and design, and people took notice.
Regular customers would include the likes of Philadelphia-based architect Louis Kahn, who would “hold court” between sailings.
The business will continue to be a family affair as Madeline has given birth to two sons. One of Fox’s earliest memories is unboxing the books.
Fox started working at the store in his twenties, and he didn’t necessarily intend to stay, although that eventually did. Although he didn’t have as intense a passion for literature as his father, he certainly enjoyed reading – his favorite subjects including history and political philosophy – and knew what was good.
Fox’s father bought the building in 1986, a move that helped the small business survive competition on the internet and rising rents in the neighborhood.
Fox took over the shop after his father’s death in 1998. He moved the business to the first floor and held signings and events across town to boost business. Eager customers lined up early in the morning for a David Sedaris book signing in 2008.
Today, the store touts a clean, minimalist feel where the books speak. Rolling rack for classics, another for staff picks, beautifully embossed newspapers by the register, in the back of the store, children’s classics like Eric Carle’s The hungry caterpillar and the original Moomin books by Finnish author Tove Jansson.
“The worst complaint we ever had was, ‘We can’t leave without buying something else,'” Michael recalls.
Rumors of a potential closure spread among dedicated customers early in the new year.
Online orders were halted and customers were encouraged to redeem store gift certificates by January 29.
The bookstore, Fox said, did a lot of business with corporate clients requesting bulk book orders for retreats or other events. When the pandemic hit, those corporate events disappeared, and so did the orders. And foot traffic on Sansom Street has yet to rebound.
“Downtown hasn’t recovered, there’s not even anyone working, it’s just dead,” he said.
While Michael and Judi, 61, haven’t quite planned their retirement yet, Michael said he has some ideas.
“I will read history and philosophy, work out, walk my dog - the pride of Rittenhouse Square,” he said.
The rest is an open book.