Hilltop Books opens with ribbon cutting ceremony

by Walt Maguire
Posted 4/21/21

After a year of preparation and several months of a “soft” opening to a limited crowd, Hilltop Books held an official opening ceremony on Friday, April 16.

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Hilltop Books opens with ribbon cutting ceremony

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After a year of preparation and several months of a “soft” opening to a limited crowd, Hilltop Books held an official opening ceremony on Friday, April 16.

The new bookshop, at 84 Bethlehem Pike, launched at 1 p.m. with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and remarks by Friends of Chestnut Hill Library President Jan LeSuer and board member Laura Lucas; Richard Snowden, of Bowman Properties; Phil Dawson, Chestnut Hill Business Association; and State Senator Art Haywood, Councilperson Cindy Bass and State Rep. Chris Rabb.

Phil Dawson, Executive Director of the Chestnut Hill business District, said that when he’s discussing new businesses “the first thing that always comes up is ‘When will there be a bookstore?’” There hasn’t been one on the Hill since Borders closed in 2010. (There’s another one coming: booked. will open in Fall 2021.)

“Books have traveled with me, and they’ve taken me around the world,” said City Councilmember Cindy Bass on the steps of bookshop. State Rep. Chris Rabb referred to books as an “invisible chapel” that raise up the power of the written word. Friends board member Laura Lucas lead State Senator Art Haywood to the History and Politics section and explained that they hoped to have each section of books curated by someone in the neighborhood and suggested he might be interested in curating the History section.

After the speeches on the steps, Stan Cutler, Friends vice president, cut the wide red ribbon, and the bookshop became an official Hill destination.

Hilltop carries used books, donated mainly by Chestnut Hill residents. Friends of Chestnut Hill Library Executive Director Amy Wilson estimated that, perhaps because of the number of education professionals in the neighborhood, that they had a larger than normal history collection. But overall, she said, the store had a healthy mix.

Some of the books in the store (such as mysteries) were new bestsellers, the pages still white and uncreased, donated as soon as the last word was reached; others were classic old books, with thick cloth binding and delicate pages that had perhaps seen the inside of an attic. Some arrived with forgotten letters or photos tucked inside; they’re thinking about displaying some of them, at some point.

 “We also received a lot of coffee table books,” Wilson said.

The Friends estimate they hold more than 7,000 used books in the five rooms of their 1870s building, with more donations arriving with regular frequency. They’re also encouraging puzzle and game donations for a monthly ‘Family-night Game Rental’ club: $15 a month to rent two games or puzzles each week.

For many years, the Friends ran a used book sale at the Chestnut Hill branch of the Free Library at 8711 Germantown Avenue. By 2019 it was clear that the sale couldn’t continue.  For one thing, the library needed the space back, and the search began for a bookstore location, similar to the Book Corner at 311 N. 20th St.

When he Friends put out the word they were looking, Richard Snowden of Bowman Properties quickly offered the Bethlehem Pike building. Floors were refinished, the backroom was reconstructed and he presented them with a whimsical sign bracket depicting a man walking from a train to a building, appropriate for a bookstore just half a block from the Chestnut Hill East station. Volunteers contributed hours and artwork to define the space. Bookshelves were donated, some arriving just hours before the grand opening. Wilson put together a staff and they worked out the logistics of running a full-time operation.

Many of the two dozen attendees Friday were local business owners who have supported the project since it was announced ten months ago. Sales were healthy on the first day. Attendees on Friday or Saturday could enter a drawing to win Chestnut Hill prizes including a $50 gift card for dinner at Tavern on the Hill and a one-year membership to the Chestnut Hill Community Association.

The Chestnut Hill Library has been closed to the public, with prearranged book pickups and digital services only, though preparations are being made to reopen in the coming months. Funding was tight before 2020, and the Friends have been a major factor in keeping things going. Head librarian Prather O’Donnell pointed out that when she started at the library, there were three librarians; now she’s the only one.

“The Friends have been creative, driven, and generous,” she said. Walking around the bookshop was the first time she’d seen some library regulars in a long time.

On Saturday, Maddie Megargee was on hand to talk about the mural she created for the Childrens section.

Sometime this spring, landscaping will begin on a half-acre lot around the store as a patio for customers and a venue for reading clubs and book events. The fundraising goal is $75,000, to install firepits for three-season use.

A storefront across the street, donated by Bowman Properties, was overwhelmed with book donations in the first week, but will reopen soon for more contributions. The Friends estimate they already have close to 10,000 books waiting for shelf space.

 The Friends is a 501c3 nonprofit. Funds from Hilltop support programs and facilities at the Chestnut Hill branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

As of Saturday, April 17, Hilltop is open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Customer must abide by the store's COVID protocols, including social distancing when browsing. Credit card payment is preferred.

In celebration of Earth Month, patrons who count the steps between the Chestnut Hill Library and Hilltop anytime in April will get a free Health & Wellness book alongside any book purchase (while supplies last).

Volunteers can sign up at chlibraryfriends.org. There is no required membership fee to join. For more, see chlibraryfriends.org/hilltop-books or @hilltopbooksphilly.

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