East Passyunk: Stepping Back to a Simpler Time

From a technological standpoint, the last decade has been a time of growth for dependence on personal electronic devices. 

Ordering food with a tap, calling a ride-sharing service, and meeting potential significant others —  the reliance on the 5-inch piece of glass and metal in millions of pockets is staggering. Cellphones aren’t the only handheld device redefining how we conceptualize every day activities. Companies such as Amazon have ushered in a new era.

Due the impact of Amazon’s Kindle, retailers are forced to compete with the e-commerce juggernaut. 

Due to the popularity of e-books and tablets, book stores have been on a steady decline. With the ability to purchase from the comfort of the couch and have it instantly, the concept of a physical bookstore could be seen as a relic, fading into the past. Some might think the printed word is becoming obsolete.

But within society today, there is a new wave of nostalgia. Vinyl records are becoming popular again, Polaroid cameras are popping up for that instant physical photo, and retro video game consoles are returning for the digital age. 

Along East Passyunk Avenue sits a relic of the past that is bringing a modern take on the concept of a bookstore. 

A Novel Idea is an independently owned bookstore located at 1726 E. Passyunk Ave. The bookstore is owned by a married couple – Alexander and Christina Schneider. 

Alex Schneider, living in the neighborhood for the past 13 years, has had a front-row seat to the resurgence of East Passyunk Avenue. He took note that the avenue was shifting toward a more restaurant hub, rather than the retail past the avenue was known for, especially in the last decade. 

“Something that Passyunk was lacking was retail space,” Alex Schneider said. “So, we did our research on the area and decided that it was the perfect space for the bookstore.”

Alex Schneider — co-owner of A Novel Idea.

Conflicting schedules, multiple jobs, and about to be married, both decided to take on a new challenge together.  

“We both mentioned it to each other as a joke – it was something that she always wanted to do,” Alex Schneider said. “Eventually, we realized that it was plausible and that we could both do it. It was nothing out of the realm of possibilities.” 

Taking note from the popularity of other local independent bookstores in Philadelphia, such as Uncle Bobbie’s and Shakespeare & Co., the Schneiders thought Philadelphia might have the appetite for an additional option. Both had doubts and fears, but opening day put those to rest. 

“About 30 minutes before our grand opening, a line started forming and people were knocking to get in,” Alex Schneider said. “For about eight hours, we had a line to the back of the store of people waiting to check out.” 

A Novel Idea has some unique characteristics to set itself apart from other independent retailers. The store holds plays every month, card readings, and this past Halloween, a witchcraft enthusiast group. 

A Novel Idea hosts book signings for local, and national authors.

Both Alexander and Christina Schneider knew trying to compete in a world of Amazon would be difficult, however Alex Schneider had a customer-first approach when it came to the physical retail model.  

“There are plenty of things we can offer the community that Amazon can’t,” he explained. “That tactile feel of having a book and coming in the day a book is published, and going home to read it immediately.”

He went on to mention that of parents he knows, many are starting to remove tablets from their child’s hands in favor of physical books. In one Australian school, tablets are being replaced with textbooks.

Three blocks down Passyunk Avenue, and a turn back in time, is another departure from current technological standards. 

Philly Typewriter Shop is dedicated to the buying, selling, and repairing vintage typewriters. There is no music in the store – just the sound of a hard punch from typewriter to paper reverberating off the walls. 

Bryan Kravitz is one of the co-owners of the shop. Since 2016, the shop has been a tourist destination for the South Philadelphia area. In 2018, Philadelphia Magazine ranked the shop as the “Best Place to Start the Most Hipster Habit Possible.” 

“I took a six-week course on typewriting at a school in San Francisco,” Kravitz said. “I learned on an IBM Selectric II, and within three years I could take it apart and put it back together.”

With the popularity of computers, it may come as a surprise a typewriter shop even exists. In his time selling to customers, Kravitz said his biggest demographic are writers and authors.  

The shop is small but intimate. When entering, four vintage typewriters sit on a table, waiting for that first strike of the key. In every typewriter is a sheet of paper, inviting customers to test any machine they wish, a practice Kravitz uses for a more intellectual purpose. 

A customer leaves a message on one of the dozen typewriters that wait for curious fingers

“At the end of the day, when you collect all the papers, you can find so many stories just on what people put on paper,” Kravitz said. “You can’t do that on a computer.”

Jake Wood, a tourist from London, stopped in while touring Passyunk Avenue. He, like Kravtiz, is a screenwriter. 

“I just like to have my thoughts on paper,” Wood said. “It’s much more immediate. On a screen, you have notifications and sounds… and you get distracted easily. You can get straight to it with a typewriter.” 

Wood credit’s his preference to typewriters to the way he was raised.

“My mother and my Nan used to put me in front of a piece of paper when I was five, and I used to type on my grandmother’s typewriter,” Wood explained. 

Jake Wood tests out one of the vintage typewriters for sale.

Kravtiz, who still uses a typewriter to this day, prefers the calmness and straightforward quality a typewriter offers, rather than a computer.

“The biggest engineer of distraction is the internet,” Kravitz explained. “Applications are designed to be addictive. Typing is almost meditative. Typewriters make you slow down and think while you type. Computers make you into a lazy thinker. It’s not practical, it’s not reasonable, but it’s inspirational.”

With an immersive night life and fine dining, Passyunk Avenue attracts many people to the street for its liveliness. But with the addition of A Novel Idea and Philly Typewriter Shop the street also offers others the chance to step back into a simpler time.

Please email any questions or concerns about this story to: editor@philadelphianeighbors.com.

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