Rebooting Bookie’s: Garces Group Awakens The Spirit Of An Old Original Legend

 

John Taxin built an empire out of an oyster saloon | Photo: Harry Kyriakodis

On January 9th, Chef Jose Garces reopened the Old Original Bookbinder’s at Second and Walnut Street under the new moniker The Olde Bar. Closed since 2009 after the former owners declared bankruptcy, the building has been sitting dormant ever since. The new restaurant, a reworking of the classic “oyster saloon” that once called the space home, is bound to give this storied Philadelphia institution a new lease on what became in later years quite the beleaguered life.

 A Briny Beginning

Cover of an old Bookbinder's promotional booklet in the collection of Harry K.

Cover of an old Bookbinder’s promotional booklet | Author’s collection

Dutch immigrant Samuel Bookbinder opened an oyster saloon at Fifth and South Streets in 1893 and five years later moved his popular eatery to 125 Walnut Street. There he plated up all manners of seafood, getting his menu fresh off the ships docked along Philadelphia’s central Delaware waterfront. Shad, terrapin, and oysters were Bookbinder’s favorite meals, and portions were generous enough to satisfy his salty crowd, which ranged from storekeepers and stockbrokers to sailors, sea captains, and stevedores.

Decades later, an inheritor of the Old City Bookbinder’s location bequeathed the aging building to the Jewish Federated Charities, which eventually sold it to John M. Taxin, a local produce business owner who had an affinity for the restaurant, having enjoyed many midday meals there. He remodeled the restaurant and renamed it Old Original Bookbinder’s in 1949, growing the eatery in both size and reputation. The Second and Walnut location would eventually include three bars, seven dining rooms, and seating for 800.

 

All That And A Shrimp Cocktail

An Old Original Bookbinder's ashtray from Harry K's collection.

An Old Original Bookbinder’s ashtray | Author’s collection

“Bookie’s,” as it was affectionately called, became a mecca for celebrities, tourists, and the clubby crowd of Philadelphians who went there for long, boozy lunches, birthdays, and anniversaries. During the restaurant’s zenith in the 1950s and 60s (and into the 70s), waiters scurried through paneled rooms adorned with ship models, taxidermied game fish, and photos of the rich and famous. Diamond Jim Brady, Howard Cosell, Muhammad Ali, David Bowie, Gregory Peck, Julius Erving, and John Wayne always visited Bookie’s when they were in town. When you dined at Bookbinder’s there was always a chance that you would be served at a table once occupied by Babe Ruth or Tennessee Williams, Teddy Roosevelt, Al Jolson, or Elizabeth Taylor. Frank Sinatra routinely stopped by the restaurant whenever in Philadelphia, and even Madonna is said to have dined there. The White House was no stranger either. Legend has it, one day in 1972 the presidential helicopter landed in a dirt-topped parking lot across Walnut Street. To the astonishment of regular patrons, President Richard Nixon had flown up from Washington for a lunch date with Mayor Frank Rizzo.

Bankrupting Bookie’s

The Original Bookbinder’s at 121–135 Walnut Street | Photo: Harry Kyriakodis

John Taxin and his son Albert ran the restaurant until the 1980s. Taxin’s grandson, John, soon took over, but was forced to close in 2001 due to financial and operational difficulties, including a series of fires.

Four years later the restaurant reopened under the same management after substantial renovations and a reduction in square footage, giving way to a new condominium, The Moravian, which was attached in the rear–half of residential development took over part of the restaurant complex, while the other half was built from the ground up.

Despite the addition of The Moravian, the overhauled restaurant failed to bring in business and went bankrupt, closing for good in 2009. With Bookie’s furnishings and decor still in tact, the set of buildings at 121–135 Walnut Street have sat vacant for over five years.

A Family Affair

IMG_00000120

The Old Original Bookbinder’s location, with The Moravian complex looming above | Photo: Harry Kyriakodis

To confuse matters, the Bookbinder family had not been associated with the Old City location since giving up the building in 1935. It was that year that two of Samuel Bookbinder’s grandsons opened a seafood restaurant at 215 South 15th Street. They set up shop in a former police precinct building–in the French Second Empire style–dating back to 1890. Bookbinder’s Seafood House became famous for its snapper soup, Maine lobster, and cheesecake. In the back was a “Wall of Fame” on which hung photos of celebrity guests who posed for pictures with Bookbinder family members.

After nearly 70 years on 15th Street, Bookbinder’s Seafood House on 15th Street fell into disrepair and closed. Tax problems and family squabbles did in the restaurant in 2003. Applebee’s moved in soon after.

“His Name Is My Name Too.”

For decades, there was much confusion about the Bookbinder situation in Philadelphia. When either Bookbinder’s would get a reservation for a large group, invariably, half the party would end up at the other restaurant across town. The Walnut street restaurant added “Old Original” to its name to distinguish itself from the uptown location operated by the Bookbinder family, but doing so didn’t necessarily remedy the situation. As expected, a not-so-friendly, but civil, rivalry developed between the two establishments.

To add to the confusion, there is another Old Original Bookbinder’s location in Richmond, Virginia, which the Taxin family still operates today. In the early 1970s, the Taxins even created a foods division that sold traditional Bookbinder’s favorites packaged for supermarket sales. Silver Spring Gardens, Inc., acquired Bookbinder’s Foods in 1999 and has retained the words “Philadelphia’s World Famous” as part of its logo. Based in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the company sells a full line of canned seafood soups, condiments and sauces.

Something Borrowed, Something Bookbinder’s

A old postcard of the interior of Old Original Bookbinder's at 121–135 Walnut Street

A old postcard of the interior of Old Original Bookbinder’s at 121–135 Walnut Street | Author’s collection

It’s hard to find a Philadelphia native over forty who doesn’t have a cherished Bookbinder’s memory. The Old Original Bookbinder’s at 125 Walnut Street was not only a destination for visiting dignitaries, heads of state, professional athletes and Hollywood stars, but a place of pride for locals. This is what makes the reopening of the old eatery so exciting for old patrons like me. With a heavy nod to the legacy of the Old Original Bookbinder’s, the newly opened The Olde Bar offers fresh seafood, a raw bar, and a quirky, old world cocktail menu. Garces has reanimated the restaurant with the help of John Taxin’s grandson, keeping much of the old nautical decorum and wall hangings the same. The name may be different, but the colorful 150 years old Bookbinder’s legacy is sticking around.

About the author

Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.

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7 Comments


  1. I celebrated my 21st Birthday at Bookies & had my first (legal) drink. A scotch & soda.

  2. While keeping the ship and fishing decorations intact will no doubt be a nostalgic delight, only the subsequent behavior of the staff and patrons can demonstrate that “old nautical decorum” – the quartermaster piping guests aboard, polished brass buttons, and addressing fellow crew as “matey” etc. – has been restored. 😉

  3. I grew up in Philly but have never been to Bookbinders, another missed opportunity. If I ever make it back to Philly I will have to visit. Thank you for the great article Harry, makes me feel that I have been there.

  4. The Mike Douglas Show would tape in the afternoon and afterwards the guests would often have dinner at Old Original. The week that Chad Everett was co-host, my brother and I, both junior papparazo, stalked the Medical Center star at the restaurant. He looked very Hollywood in his flashy neckerchief. Pictures were taken and autographs were obtained.

  5. I will never go back and will advise others not to go.
    Last Friday, Jan. 9, we paid for parking and made our way in the frigid temps to the front door on Walnut St. A man who looked as if he had just finished unloading a ship on the docks informed us that the restaurant was filled to capacity and that we would may be able to get in in 45 minutes. Glancing into the restaurant, it looked no more crowded that a typical restaurant on a Friday night.

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