Those familiar with the busy intersection of 11th and Chestnut Streets have undoubtedly noticed the ghost signs above MilkBoy, a popular cafe and bar. The sign, with its large arrow pointing south on 11th Street, reads, “This Way To 1229 Walnut Street.” More subtle are the signs and images that are partially cut off by newer garage bay doors. “Reedmor BOOKS” with an image of a hand pointing at a book, still catches the eye. One can only think of it as an all too perfect name for a bookstore.
Steve Bagelman, grandson of the founders of Reedmor Books, recently recalled his family history while enjoying a cup of coffee at MilkBoy on an early spring day. “Shelf, after shelf, after shelf, STACKS of magazines!” he exclaimed, recalling the estimated two million books and magazines that once donned the shelves and crowded the shop’s basement storage. Besides books, the store was known for its backdated magazines, assortment of novelties, and magic tricks.
Steve’s grandfather, Charles Bagelman, came to the United States from an area near the Ukrainian and Polish border at the age of 18. His first business venture, a delicatessen, only lasted a few years. In 1928, Charles changed course and opened the first Reedmor Books located at 607 Market Street. The neighborhood was still largely residential at the time, and the store was strategically placed between Old City and Center City. The Bagelmans owned four properties on the block including 607, 609, 611 and 613 Market Streets.
Many of the store’s patrons assumed the Bagelman’s last name was Reedmor. “People used to call my father Mr. Reedmor” Steve said of his dad, David Bagelman, who was 27 when the store opened and continued to operate the business throughout his life. Steve noted that he is unsure of why the name was chosen and that his father never corrected the mistake. Even more noteworthy was the fact that Charles Bagelman could not read or write English, a secret for many years. However, the family worked together and found immense success at its first location. This could be attributed to Charles’ wife, Rebecca, who was fluent in English, Russian, and Yiddish and read the Jewish Daily Forward every day. Recalling his grandmother’s importance to the business, Steve mentioned that “She was the one that did the reading, and I suppose she told him what to buy.”
David Bagelman, Charles and Rebacca’s son, was a man with two passions: books and Philadelphia real estate. “My father couldn’t say no,” said Steve. “If somebody was selling old books or magazines, he would buy them.” David continued to grow the business and later owned the building at 11th and Chestnut Streets as part of his real estate portfolio. It was rented out as a drugstore for many years.
Steve grew up around the family business and eventually began working there at the early age of 13. “I had no choice” said Steve. He and his older brother, who was 15 at the time, were put in charge of a second bookstore at 613 Market Street. The brothers ran the store every day after school, as well as Saturdays and during the summer months. However, for the brothers, running a bookstore was not their calling. “I hated it” Steve explained. “I was very, very resentful. It was not what I wanted to do.” Despite this, he continued to work in the stores through his education at Overbrook High School and college. Steve would use the books for research projects while in school and read as many book summaries in the store as he could. As time went on, his connection to the store only grew. “All of my friends ended up working in the store. My wife ended up working in the store. Everybody I knew ended up working at the store at some point or other.”
Eminent domain eventually made its way to the 600 block of Market Street to build the James A. Byrne United States Courthouse. Charles Bagelman fought the process, but ultimately sold his four properties in 1963. The family used the money to open a new bookshop at 1028 Chestnut Street, a space formerly occupied by Bain’s Leather Goods. The store had a large glass display window with a protective overhang. A set of wooden signs, one with the Reedmor name and another with the logo of a hand pointing to a book, were mounted on a stone wall under the overhang and were visible to pedestrians walking westbound on Chestnut Street. The wooden signs were well protected from the elements and are still owned by the family.
While magazines sold better at the Market Street location, books were the top seller at Chestnut Street. Steve mentioned that science fiction books were his father’s favorite genre. Bookstores were different at that time, as Steve explained. “You didn’t read in bookstores. When somebody came in, my father would say ‘Do you want to buy that. No? Put it back!’”
The store on Chestnut Street was successful, but not without its challenges. After about a year at this location Jefferson Hospital began to expand. Eminent domain struck the family a second time. The Bagelmans took the issue to court and were able to strike a deal with Jefferson for full use of the building at $100 a month in rent. The deal was expected to last about a year, but continued for 10 until 1973 when Jefferson tore down the building for its hospital. It was during this period that the Bagelmans took advantage of the corner building at 11th and Chestnut Streets and had the sign seen today painted some time in the late 1960s to mid-1970s. It was used to direct pedestrian traffic to their shop. Steve recalled that the sign’s arrow originally pointed the opposite direction towards the Chestnut Street store.
Reedmor opened its third location at 1229 Walnut Street and changed the sign’s directional arrow. Steve noted that the store did very well on Chestnut Street. “Walnut, not so much. Not as busy. Less traffic.” Focus turned back to magazines, primarily pulp magazines, which were inexpensive fiction magazines that got their name from the cheap pulp paper on which they were printed. David Bagelman was quoted in an article from 1999, stating that pulp magazine authors, “really used their imagination. The settings were always exotic countries, or different planets, and they were able to take you from our world by manipulating a time warp or something like that. We have always had a steady sale for the pulps. They have always been in demand and hard to get.”
Reedmor also had “every National Geographic, every Life, every Look, every Esquire. There’s not a magazine you could think of that they didn’t have from the first issue” said Steve. “The quantity of magazines that he (David Bagelman) was able to amass was truly astounding.” Magazine stands were common in the city, but they only sold the current issues. The 1999 article noted, “Looking for that back issue of Astounding Stories from 1940, with the early works of Isaac Asimov? Trying to fill the holes in your True Detective Stories collection? Or do you just want a cross-section look at popular culture of the 20th century? Reedmor Books is the place to go.”
What set Reedmor apart from other shops was their ability to organize their impressive offerings. Recalling the filing system used to manage the massive collection, Steve said “No computers, so it was all card catalogs. The box had several 3×5 cards. If anybody asked for a magazine my father would check the card and see if he had that magazine. Then he would change the number from a 4 to a 3, so now he knew he only had 3 left in stock.” The extensive card catalog was attributed to a store employee, Bradley Bird, who worked at the store from 1943 until his death in 1998.
The Walnut Street location had a large balcony which increased shelf space. The store eventually moved to the second floor of the building, and the Bagelmans rented out the first floor. The business always had competitors like Leary’s Book Store at 9 S. 9th Street (1850-1969) which claimed to be “The largest old bookstore in America” and Robin’s Book Store at 6 N. 13th Street (1936-2012). However, the biggest competition came with the arrival of the internet. Rare books and backdated magazines that were once only found at shops like Reedmor Books were just a few clicks away. “My father would sell, let’s say, the 1st edition of Playboy Magazine, for $2,000. Well, you could go now on the internet and get the entire collection from somebody that had them for $100. The internet truly ended his magazine business,” said Steve.
Reedmor remained on Walnut Street for about 10 years. The next generation of Bagelmans, including Steve, had no interest in the book business. He went on to obtain his master’s degree and became a special education reacher and counselor. He now enjoys retirement. David and his wife kept the business going, but, without a successor, Reedmor Books closed for good in 2004. Some of the store’s inventory was gifted to libraries, but most was simply given away. Steve still has some of the older, rare books in his personal collection including a series of Civil War diaries.
The book bug may have skipped a generation but Steve’s daughter, Nissa Bagelman, has always had a love of books and currently works for a publisher. Nissa hopes to open her own bookstore and use the Reedmor name to carry on her family’s legacy. “You need another hook today besides books to get people in. When my daughter does it I think it’s going to be coffee, wine and beer, and books,” he said. Steve’s son is a realtor, taking up David Bagelman’s other passion for real estate.
Today, patrons of MilkBoy can still have a drink and sit underneath the ghost sign for Reedmor Books. The full sign originally read “This Way To 1229 WALNUT ST. Reedmor BOOKS/1229 WALNUT ST/922-6643 (with the logo of hand pointing to a book). DISCOUNTS TO 90%/SPECIALIZING IN SCIENCE FICTION/BACKDATE MAGAZINES & PAPERBACKS/PHILADELPHIA’S OLDEST & LARGEST.” The sign has a little something for everyone: multiple colors, type, and imagery of stacked books. The simple, but poignant Reedmor logo of a finger pointing to a book reminds Philadelphians that, while we are living during a time when Kindle, podcasts, and online news dominate reader’s eyes, one can still go to a neighborhood bookshop to find the magic of print on paper.