A Bookstore Photo Tour: The Midtown Scholar

Alison Morris -- February 12th, 2010

While I was growing up in and around Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, there were few independent bookstores to speak of. The term “independent bookstore” was, in fact, a complete unknown to me until I became an undergraduate at Smith College, where the surrounding town of Northampton taught me to value locally owned independent businesses of all stripes — bookstores included.

During a trip home at Thanksgiving, I was pleased to see that a few of my favorite independent stores in Central Pa. are still alive and well, and that Harrisburg has recently added another indie bookstore jewel to its crown. The Midtown Scholar is a cavernous space filled with some 100,000+ second-hand, out-of-print, and scholarly and books. As if that’s not large enough to be impressive, consider that if you combine the books housed on this store’s six levels of retail space with what’s also stored in its warehouses, you’re looking at 1 million volumes, all of them listed in the store’s computerized database, making this “the largest used book collection between New York City and Chicago,” according to one recent article. (Yowza!)

Did I mention they also serve a mean cup of coffee, and host music concerts, author readings, political debates, book clubs, story times, art exhibits and more?

My parents, Gareth, and I spent a blissful morning perusing the shelves and admiring the physical space of this magnificent store, and by some luck wound up chatting with Eric Papenfuse, who co-owns the store with his wife Catherine Lawrence. While their business isn’t new (they operated The Midtown Scholar in a smaller nearby building before renovating this space and moving it here), they are seeing a wealth of new readers come through the door of this, its larger, newly renovated home. Having grown weary of tales about indies having to downsize or (worse) close their doors completely, it was invigorating to witness the success of this business. I’m overjoyed that their online bookselling efforts have been lucrative enough to fund the creation and operation of such a princely brick-and-mortar store. (Would that this was the case for everyone.)

Take a look at the photos below to see why The Midtown Scholar is worth adding to your list of “must-see bookstores” and make plans to pay them a visit!

Can you tell from the marquee that this building was once a theater?

I love the former ticket booth out front.

One of the very inviting window displays…

A beautiful stained glass window mounted inside — the first hint that you’ll want to pay close attention to the architectural details in this place.

Ta da! You walk in the front door, note the Famous Reading Café on your right and step into this bright and airy space.

Look again at the photo above. See that mezzanine level ahead of you, up the black steps? The photo below was taken from that level, looking back toward the front entrance of the store.

Turn around again. The mezzanine level you’re standing on right now looks like this, below… And it’s jam-packed with books on art and photography. Seriously. That whole level. Nothing but art and photography. Be still my beating heart.

At the back of the mezzanine stands this doorway to a room full of recently received titles, not yet priced or sorted for sale, above which hangs this fantastic window.

Eventually this room looks to become the home of Rare Books and Pennsylvaniana (love this term), but the day we were there it was a delicous hodge-podge of titles on every imaginable subject, newly unpacked and awaiting the eyes of eager readers… I had so much fun exploring the shelves of this room!

I resisted the urge to climb that ladder and peruse the higher shelves, but I was sorely tempted.

Walking now along the table-lined balcony, toward the front of the store and the Yellow Wall Gallery…

Peering down from the table-lined balcony gives you a terrific view of the low stage on the first floor, which is flanked by the children’s section, and the terrific mural that fills the wall above it.

The antique staircase on the right was reportedly salvaged from a 19th-century Baltimore hotel.

Now here we are in the upper lounge, called the “Yellow Wall Gallery” for, um, obvious reasons.

Looking down on the store from that level… You can’t see it, but (just to help re-orient you) the entrance to the store is almost directly below me at this point.

The Yellow Wall gallery is home to rotating art exhibits, and wow, is it ever cozy! This is the left-hand side of the space…

and this is the right. Can you imagine a more lovely space for small readings?

Just to the left of the staged reading space above is a door to an actual outside balcony. At a bookstore. A balcony! Outside! I love this!

On the balcony, looking left.

On the balcony, looking right. Across the street is the wonderful old Broad Street Market (founded 1860), which is still a working farmer’s market and a place my parents and I frequented in my youth. The green dome in the distance is the state Capitol Building (another must-see stop on your Harrisburg tour).

Now we’re back inside, at the top of the antique staircase that leads up to the gallery. That’s owner Eric Papenfuse in the red sweatshirt below, gesturing about the enormity of his bookstore.

Look to the left of Eric in that photo above. See the sign for the lower level that appears there? Here’s a closer view of it and the room to which it’s pointing, below. As you might be able to tell, this room (of which you’re only seeing about half in this photo) is FILLED with books on the subject of American History. And still more books that have yet to be sorted and shelved. And cases filled with recently arrived remainders, sorted by publisher. Books, books, books, as far as the eye can see.

And you’re not done yet. Below the American History room, is yet another — this one filled with scholarly books on every imaginable subject. I could spend months in this store and still find myself making a magical new discovery every hour or two. If not more often than that.

Talking with Eric about the enormity of this store and speculating about its future success, he mentioned that what he and Catherine would really like to see are other bookstores opening in the area. They’d like to see Harrisburg become a mecca for readers and book collectors — an admirable goal if ever I’ve heard one. Telling Eric about my own adventures in bookselling and Gareth’s illustration career, he enthusiastically suggested that we open a children’s bookstore right next door. (See the yellow building on the right, below).

I chuckled amiably at Eric’s suggestion, thinking (for the umpteenth time) that I’d never be crazy/gutsy enough to own my own store, until he mentioned what the rent would be for both the first floor retail space and the newly renovated studio above it. The figure was one-third what Gareth and I currently pay in rent for our small Boston-area apartment. (Insert sound of my jaw hitting the floor here.) For one brief, shining moment the idea of owning my own bookstore didn’t seem quite as crazy any more… Especially not when I’d have such incredibly cool neighbors.

But, alas. The ownership plan is just not in the cards for me. If you’re interested, though, you should call the store and let Eric or Catherine know! In the meantime, read the mission of the Midtown Scholar to understand why every town should want to have and support businesses like this, and pay this terrific store a visit.

12 thoughts on “A Bookstore Photo Tour: The Midtown Scholar

  1. Dee Marshall

    An invigorating experience. I visited with my family and we had a wonderful time. There is something for everyone. We were each able to find a book of interest. Also, the cafe has delicious and exotic teas as well as robust coffee and fantastic desserts. I live in the area and am so happy to have this bookstore as part of our community.

  2. Olivei

    What a great and thorough job you have done. You have given me new ideas for areas to browse. I never get past the local interest section and always walk out with a full bag. I did happen to see a book on my first browse-through called Football and Facism. It was about soccer and Mussolini and priced at $68. I find most prices reasonable and far better than Amazon.

  3. Diane

    I live and work in nearby Lancaster County and use to work at a small museum in Harrisburg when I was attending college at Penn State Harrisburg. I have already made my plans to visit the Midtown bookstore! I plan on making a whole day of it! It is funny that the owners mentioned opening a children’s bookstore. I have always wanted to do that! A children’s bookstore with a fabulous kids cafe! My dream!

  4. ShelfTalker Alison

    Lois, I somehow didn’t realize we had neighboring roots! My parents live in Mechanicsburg now and when I’m visiting them I often also drive to see friends in Carlisle — no doubt on the same road you and your mother used to travel.

  5. Lois Lowry

    Wow! I grew up in Carlisle, just down the road. Twice a year (this was in the 40′s) Mother drove my sister and me to Harrisburg (seemed like a long trip then!) to shop for clothes. Such excitement! If only this bookstore had been there then!!!

  6. Jennifer McDowell

    Beautiful photos! NPR used to give out lists of NPR stations all over the country so you could stay connected(this was a long time ago!)to ATC as you travelled–and Jane and Michael Stern review great little restaurants all over–how about a list of wonderful independent book stores to visit and support!

  7. Catherine Lawrence

    Alison, we really enjoyed your detailed and enthusiastic write-up about the Midtown Scholar in today’s ShelfTalker blog! We are pleased to be able to offer customers and fans such a superb virtual tour now, thanks to you! We’re encouraged to find that our bookstore-cafe is as exciting to browsers as we hoped, and we’re glad to have been able to make such a positive contribution to the neighborhood and community. Midtown Harrisburg, PA, is becoming a regional arts destination. This winter, Third Street’s galleries have joined together, with some funding support from nearby green-developers, for a new Third-Fridays monthly event that’s already drawing crowds! (3rdintheBurg.com) And just yesterday Eric & I signed a lease with a local contemporary-artists’ collaborative, the Mantis Collective, in conjunction with a nonprofit film/music group, Moviate.org, for the shop-space next to us (which you mention in your piece). They’ll be doing neat renovations & expect to open on April 16th. We look forward to having a more new arts-and-culture oriented neighbors soon, too.

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