“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.
Because the prevalence of nitrate in the film reels greatly contributed to the threat of fire, the Richmond equipped the movie screen with a flame-retardant asbestos curtain. This curtain also held a dual purpose: advertisements for local businesses were sewed on–a 1940s version of today’s pre-preview commercials.
The former projection room, accessed by a rickety, unlit staircase, is a deteriorating enclave with peeling concrete walls and boxes of old tools scattered throughout. There’s beauty in the dilapidation up here—peeking through the projection windows, the vast space of the former auditorium below is striking. The contrast between the labyrinths of books and skyscraping ceilings of the old theater is magnificent.
Frank Dougherty, a retired Daily News reporter, grew up a few blocks from the Richmond Theatre, where two of his aunts worked in the box office. Doughtery remembered a childhood full of double features and 16-cent movie ticket fares. So vivid were his memories, Dougherty could recall the first “adult” movie he saw at the Richmond: “King Solomon’s Mines,” a 1950 film starring Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger. More importantly, patronizing the Richmond Theatre was an expression of neighborhood pride.
“With the neighborhood theaters, you had a territorial imperative about it,” Doughtery says. “You wouldn’t go to other neighborhoods. You held stock in your local movie house.”
The Richmond was by no means the only movie theater in the neighborhood. Dougherty rattled off the names of several Port Richmond theaters of his youth: The Allegheny, The Iris, The Clearfield, The Belgrade, The Midway, and The Wishart. Today, none of the theaters are operational, and few of the original structures are even standing. All of the theaters closed between the late 1950s and early 1970s, and were either completely torn down and replaced with fast food joints, or born again as far less glamorous chain stores.
The Richmond Theatre closed in 1953. Dougherty believes that the closing of the Richmond was a casualty of the democratization of television in American homes. While the Richmond was one of the first movie theaters in the neighborhood to go, the others weren’t far behind.
After the Richmond closed, Blue Ribbon Vending moved into the building to store pinball machines, cigarette dispensers, and jukeboxes—many of the vinyl records from the Blue Ribbon products are still in the basement of the building.
In the mid-1960s, Fischer Hardware Company bought the building and used the space to sell their products wholesale. When Gillespie came in 2003, he tried to get rid of most of the leftover hardware by donating it to Habitat for Humanity, but the space was so packed, boxes of old hardware still collect dust among the stacks.
To many neighborhood residents, Port Richmond Books represents the return of something that was lost on Richmond Street after the construction of I-95 was completed in 1968. Jesiolowska owned Szypula Bakery, located across the street from the bookstore, from 1985 until she was forced to close in spring of 2012. Now, the space operates as a thrift store. She recalled the consequences of I-95’s construction: the bulldozing of an entire street, the impeded access to the Delaware River, and the increased prevalence of shopping malls that took a toll on smaller local businesses.
“I-95 destroyed the neighborhood,” Jesiolowska says. “Before I-95, there were just more people. We’re on the edge of the neighborhood now… As far as Richmond Street—it wasn’t the same. It just lost a big chunk of something.”
But now, there’s something uplifting, and symbolic, about Port Richmond Books’ existence in a space that once brought so much life to the neighborhood, because it might have the power to do so again.
“The people who Greg brings in here are as interesting as the book he sells,” Dougherty says. “There’s a common denominator of everyone who hangs out here, and they’re born of a natural curiosity.”