Big Blue Marble’s new look: a peaceful place amid the chaos

by Stacia Friedman
Posted 2/2/23

At a time when neighborhood bookstores are sprouting again in the Northwest, Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Mt. Airy is sailing confidently into its 18th year with a new look.

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Big Blue Marble’s new look: a peaceful place amid the chaos


At a time when neighborhood bookstores are sprouting again in the Northwest, Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Mt. Airy is sailing confidently into its 18th year with a new look. Visitors will find the same alluring selection of books, but with an enlarged kids section, a brand new reading room and an accessible public restroom.

“There was an event space on the second floor before, but we reconfigured it to resemble a living room for customers to read and for our writing group,” said bookstore founder Sheila Allen Avelin. “We also removed the book shelves from the reading room because we found books sold better on the first floor.”  The result is a warm, welcoming space that encourages patrons to sink into a comfy chair, linger over a cup of tea, peruse a novel or perhaps write one.

A flier at the entrance of the reading room sets the tone: “This is a calm space in a boisterous world,” meaning no cell phone conversations or video conferencing. A HEPA filter runs at all times, but if several people are sharing the room, it is requested they “follow health department recommendations for indoor masking based on current levels of community spread.” Remember the deck adjacent to the reading room? It has been replaced by a selection of native plants that grow well under the pre-existing black walnut tree. 

When Big Blue Marble Bookstore opened in 2005, Allen Avelin had an impressive resume which included working at Politics and Prose independent bookstore in Washington, D.C., Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative in Madison, Wis., and being a teacher at Friends Select School and the University of Pennsylvania. She also had a sense of purpose. Allen Avelin chose to locate in Mt. Airy for its diverse community and social change activists, along with the strong appeal of other neighborhood businesses and the area's commitment to shopping locally. What she didn’t have was a crystal ball capable of predicting a global pandemic in 2020 that would impact both her business and family.

“During the pandemic, our home was being renovated, so my wife and I, along with our then 15-year-old child Zivia, were living on the third floor of the bookstore when everything shut down,” she said. “We closed the business to the public, drastically reduced our staff, expanded our online platform and turned the shop into a warehouse from which we offered curbside pick up or delivery.”

By December 2020, the bookstore reopened with abbreviated hours. Just when everything seemed to be returning to normal, there was an unexpected plot twist, just like in a well-paced mystery. “Our steam heating system had come to the end of its lifetime,” Allen Avelin said. “When the contractors arrived, they explained we had no choice. So, the extra space now in the Kids section was created when we removed the old hot water heater.” That also made space for a public restroom.

According to a July 10, 2022 story in The New York Times, many independent bookstores fared well during the pandemic. “Small booksellers not only survived the pandemic, but many are thriving,” wrote reporters Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris in “Some Surprising Good News: Bookstores Are Booming,” This was true for Big Blue Marble Bookstore. 

“They're my favorite bookstore,” said Gloria Rohlfs, a Mt. Airy life coach.  “It's fun to look around the store, a great selection.”

Artist Marcia Jones agrees. “On the occasion I want to order, I ask them first,” Jones said. “I appreciate and support the sweet way the shop always looks, the well-organized shelves, excellent children’s selections, and their social and cultural contribution to our community.”

“We had a really great December,” said Allen Avelin, who wryly added: “Our sales depend on how happy people feel when they listen to NPR.” This explains why fall book sales got off to a slow start due to voter polls indicating a “Red Wave.”

“We carry what adults read,” Allen Avelin said. “Literary fiction, best sellers, LGBTQ, feminist-centric fantasy and SciFi selections.” They also carry African American nonfiction, history, poetry, contemporary politics and cookbooks. Considering the shop was named for a popular PBS children’s program (1974-1983), the store naturally has an exceptional children’s section, as well as young adult books - all with a progressive bent.

“Lately, our customer base is expanding. We are seeing younger readers in response to “#BookTok on TikTok,” said Allen Avelin, referring to the section of the popular video-streaming app dedicated to book reviews and discussions. “There’s also a renaissance in romance fiction. Not the bodice-ripper kind with Fabio on the cover; it’s been rebranded,” she said.

Big Blue Marble Bookstore is at 551 Carpenter Lane.