Old City Bookstore a Throwback to a Different Era

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Photos by Jesse Bernstein

It would be grossly underselling it to say that when Jules Goldman bought his store at Second and Market streets in 2009, it bore the imprint of its previous owners, a mattress company called Foam Land. There was extensive fire damage, faulty plumbing and electric, and hulking machines that weighed in the tons.

Walk in today, and you’re liable to get a nod from Goldman before stepping into an equally overwhelming display. The 4,000-square-foot Jules Goldman Books and Art store is home to hundreds of paintings, hung on the wall by local artists or stacked haphazardly on the floor for those willing to look a little harder. Thousands of books line the shelves and spill out of boxes; some are general reading, but just as many are rare and out of print. If you’re looking for, say, Furniture of the Pilgrim Century (1910), it can be had here.

Goldman doesn’t discriminate when it comes to music, either. You can pick up a vintage Vivaldi pressing as surely as you can snag a vinyl copy of Cam’ron’s “That’s Me,” the second track on his 2000 album, S.D.E. If none of that does it for you, there’s also a bar’s worth of beer steins, stacks of maps and drawings, vintage posters and advertisements, and a few imposing grandfather clocks. Not even to mention knickknacks and tchotchkes as far as the eye can see.

“It’s one of very few of its kind still around,” Goldman said of his store.

One might say that of Goldman, too.

Goldman, 71, is the son of Holocaust survivors who met in Germany after the war. His mother had holed up in Siberia, and his father somehow survived the war despite living in Poland. Goldman never knew exactly how he managed it, nor did his father talk much about it, but it didn’t take much imagination.

“You’re Jewish in Poland during the war, it’s a little rough,” he said with a laugh.

His parents made their way to Philadelphia in 1952, and Goldman has lived here his entire life, if you don’t count a few sojourns to the suburbs (too boring there, he said). He went to Olney High School, and studied at Peirce Junior College and the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. He painted back then and, though he enjoyed it (he focused mostly on landscapes, once even getting his work featured on the cover of a 1964 Philadelphia Bulletin magazine), he didn’t feel it was an efficient use of time.

“I would win awards but never get any money,” he said. “That’s why I gave it up. Everybody else would get the money, and I’d get, yeah, a little plaque, a certificate, gee, thanks, what happened to the money?”

Today, he makes a commission selling paintings hung on his walls by local artists.

He spent a few years in the military, stationed in Germany and Vietnam during the war. After all the time he spent reading in libraries during high school and college, his military time was filled with anything but that pursuit. Besides the lack of English books, he said, he was just too busy. And when he did have free time, it was usually dedicated to drinking. He shook his head as he described the long-lost days of beer at 25 cents a bottle and cartons of cigarettes going for $1.10.

Goldman spent a few years as an accountant before he decided to get into bookselling. Back then, it was easy for him to show up to Freeman’s Auction and pick from among hundreds of boxes of books on a Saturday to be towed back to wherever his store happened to be that year.

“Philadelphia had an endless amount of books,” he recalled.

He’d sometimes buy 40 or 50 boxes in a day. For the rarer stuff, he’d have to go to auctions, which he continues to do. He’s been running into the same buyers in the area for decades. To them, one of his claims to fame is that he jumps to buy Judaica.

The store was once on Kater Street, another time at Fifth and South streets. The problem, it seemed, was that every time he’d find a new location, the building would get sold a few months later, and he’d be off to find replacement digs. He moved back into the city when he opened up the current location. His second wife had just passed away — cancer — and he was tired of puttering around a big, quiet house.

He’s tried to sell online, but it is, in his words, “too much of a pain in the ass.” Younger people don’t buy like they used to, and older customers are “saturated” in material, he said. Throw in the fact that online booksellers have cut into his business in ways he didn’t foresee, and it’s not hard to see why his operation is largely an analog one.

And if anyone’s interested in a first European edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he’s been trying to unload it for years.

[email protected]; 215-832-0740

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