A Short History of Larry Robin and Robin's Book Store


Robin's Book Store was opened at 21 North 11th Street by my grandfather, David, in 1936. My father Herman and my uncle Morris soon joined him. It was the Depression, and my father's job was to sit by the compactor in the paper yard and pull out magazines that were re-salable, the origin of the recycled magazine business that we are still in. From the very beginning, Robin's served a wide range of customers, since we sold new and used books and magazines.

In 1960, Robin's moved to 6 North 13th Street, I graduated from Central High School, studied sculpture during the day and worked in the store at night. The paperback revolution had just begun in the book industry and I was given that department. Up until then most books were only published in hardback. Kennedy has just been elected, there was an intellectual curiosity abroad and the price of paperbacks was affordable. Robin's became a center for the counterculture, supporting the civil rights struggle, the anti-war movement. the women's movement and experimental literature. We had the books that others would not carry. Books on politics and art, on the Civil Rights Movement and Revolution. Books by African American authors and Beat poets. We had everything from Erotica to Mao, from small political and literary magazines to anti-war and rock posters. You could find Richard Wright and John A. Williams, Malcolm X and Huey Newton, Sartre and DeBeauvoir, Durrenmatt and Lessing, Fanon and Guevara, Ginsberg and Levertov. We were open 14 hours a day, you could always find someone to argue politics or literature with, and downtown Philadelphia was a lively and interesting place.

Barney Rosset bought Grove Press, a small hardback publisher. He sat in the warehouse and ripped the hard covers off the books and rebound them in paperback. He was in tune with the times. He brought avante guard literature from Europe and began to fight the censorship laws in America. He published Lady Chaterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence and followed that with Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller in 1964. I loved it. Philadelphia District Attorney, James Crumlish, Jr. didn't. He notified the book community that he did not want this book sold in his city. Barney said he would support us if we would fight the censor. I had a conference with my father and uncle and we informed the DA, "If you don't want this book sold, you will have to come and take it." Robin's Book Store was the only book store in Philadelphia to refuse to remove the book. They made it a civil case and asked the court for an injunction to stop Robin's from selling Tropic of Cancer. Leary's Book Store advertised that they won't carry the book. The case is on the front page every day for a week and we sold 7000 copies. We lost. The Supreme Court later reversed another case and made it legal to sell Tropic of Cancer in the United States. It was the 60's, you could stand up for what was right, and not only not go to jail but make money. I got more political, we gave out anti-war literature at the counter, we sold the Black Panther Paper, we got shipments of Quotations from Chairman Mao by the case directly from China. The FBI arrived. My father said to me, "The only thing they can do, is make you lose your job, and they can't do that here."

Time passes. Money is always tight. Charles Rappaport bought the building we were in and doubled the rent. I noticed that many small businesses went out of business when their ten year lease came up for renewal. Somehow small business never seems to keep up with real estate values. I read a report from the American Booksellers Association that says that rent should be 9% of gross. I said to my partners, "The only way we can stay in business is to own our location." I started looking and in 1980 found a building only two blocks south at 108-110 South 13th Street.

In 1981, Robin's Book Store moved to 108 South 13th Street. With more space and a second floor we began having events in the evening. Poetry readings, children's programs, political speakers, famous and unknown authors were all presented. We even showed silent movies with live piano and popcorn.

In 1983 we founded Moonstone Inc. as a non profit corporation, to allow us to create programs that were needed but not cost effective. My wife, developed children's programs based on Howard Gardner's theories of multiple intelligence, using the arts to stimulate cognitive development. I developed adult programs on the relationship of art and politics, literature as self- empowerment. The Celebration of Black Writing has run for 17 years. The Paul Robeson Festival had ten seasons. The Philadelphia Ink, Women's Ink and Poetry Philadelphia programs have run over the last ten years, spotlighting Philadelphia based writers.

We have sponsored a regular readings program since 1983, presenting over 100 readings a year. The attendance has ranged from hundreds of people turning out for Maya Angelou and Jerry Adams to large crowds for Sonia Sanchez, Eleanor Wilner, and Walter Mosley, to one person coming to meet Terry McMillan (when her first book came our and nobody knew her). The authors have ranged from Pulitzer Prize winners Rita Dove and Charles Fuller to young authors who are self-published. We do our best to support Philadelphia area and emerging writers.

On the censorship front, we went to court again, to challenge Pennsylvania's newly passed "child access" law. This law prohibits display of any material, which discusses sex or displays nudity, where a child may have access to it, and gives the local authorities the right to determine what the "community standards" are. This could limit public display of most books other than children's books (and even some of those) depending on the mentality of the local officials. Again we lost.

I have served on the Boards of: The American Bookseller's Foundation for Free Expression; the steering committee of the Read Together Coalition; the literature panel of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts; the steering committee of the Year of the Pennsylvania Writer. I have also advised the Mayor's Commission of Literacy and worked with various Philadelphia cultural organizations arranging author events and book fairs.

The 1990's were not good to Robin's Book Store, which lost money for the entire decade. What were the factors which contributed to this? One was what was happening in the book industry and another was what was happening in our neighborhood. We have survived this period when over 50% of independent books stores nationwide went out of business and Center City Philadelphia languished. The year 2000 saw us almost double our income and brought us very close to break even.

In terms of the book industry, we have faced 20 years of consolidation and corporate takeover of both publishing and book selling. In publishing we have seen major publishing reduced to six multi-national corporations, none of which are headquartered in the United States. In book selling: what was once, primarily, local independent stores; is now dominated by three national chains of 30,000 square foot superstores, selling entertainment product, including books, music, and videos. Philadelphia had 15 bookstores in center city, it now has two general independent bookstores, both of which own their own locations.

This period also saw the decline of Center City Philadelphia. Our neighborhood, east of broad, was allowed to languish through the 1970's and 1980's, while the location of the Convention Center and the development of the Tourist Industry were debated. The location of the Convention Center in Center City, the construction of new hotels, the development of Tourism, the conversion of old office building to condo's and apartments, and the arrival of Tony Goldman have all contributed to turning East of Broad around. (Appendix E contains articles on the development of the 13th street corridor.)

The future looks good. Business is on the rise. We now have a bedroom as well as an office customer base. The first new up-scale business opened in October of 2000. Zoning is posted for three new restaurants across the street. Life looks good, but I have the 1990's to pay for....