Organized Chaos and Awe

Many who enter 
Fishtown’s oddest venue become 
overwhelmed by its grandeur.

By Elliott Sharp
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 17, 2011

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Ben Orlock (left) and Mike DiProspero, owners of Bookspace

Photo by Jeff Fusco

“Most foreign visitors in the late-nineteenth century, as well as this writer in the twentieth, found Philadelphia to be an unexpected city.” 

-John Lukacs, Philadelphia: Patricians & Philistines, 1900-1950

So begins one of the roughly 100,000 books stacked on shelves, scattered across tables, piled on the floor, resting on the hood of a Volvo or peeking out of countless boxes at Bookspace, the Fishtown bookstore run by Mike DiProspero and Ben Orlock. 

They initially rented the old 19th-century elevator 
factory—which sits on Frankford Street one block south of Johnny Brenda’s—to house inventory for their online bookstore, but around 2008 they opened it to the public.

“It’s unlike any other place in Philadelphia,” Orlock says on a recent Saturday evening after helping a customer find a dictionary. “It has a unique vibe and it’s impossible to not be awed by the space.” 

“Awe” is an apt descriptor; it’s the look on the faces of many people who wander in. They’re instantly overwhelmed by its grandeur—the high vaulted ceilings, skylit windows, long stretches of seemingly never-ending bookshelves, colorful strands of fabric flowing from the walls, Christmas lights glowing and clinging to unusual objects—and so they’re forced to pause a few paces past the entrance to take it all in. As if encountering the sublime, they’re trying to adjust to something they’ve never quite experienced before.

Though open to walk-in customers for nearly three years now, it wasn’t until this March that Orlock and DiProspero drastically increased Bookspace’s public events, and it has quickly become one of Philly’s raddest new music venues. 

There’s an open jazz session every Thursday night, which consistently brings dozens of top-notch local players. Late May saw the first monthly noise night, which featured local noisers Dick Neff, Embarker, Suicide Magnets and Nightburger. If you’re into jazz and noise, you know there aren’t many welcoming venues in the city, and that’s what Bookspace is all about: providing a home for concerts and other events that otherwise wouldn’t have one. They’re currently planning a classical music and opera night, Orlock says.

I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is “Yes, you can score a heavy dose of rock ’n’ roll at Bookspace, too.” Local rockers Pet Milk, Lantern and Arc In Round shared a bill back in May, for instance, and next Wednesday, Bookspace hosts what’s perhaps their biggest national touring band yet when critically acclaimed Nashville, Tenn.-based rock duo Jeff the Brotherhood come to rumble and rattle the shelves.

But first, there are two not-to-be-missed shows this weekend. Friday is Afro-Beat night with a 12-piece ensemble led by Rotimi Hundeyin—a former member of Fela Kuti’s son Femi’s band—and Friday night, August 26, five hip-hop artists take the stage, including local headliner Theodore Grams.

From random books to noise, hip-hop to rock, and Afro-Beat to opera, every night at Bookspace is an unpredictable adventure, and they plan on keeping it that way.

“It’s orchestrated chaos,” DiProsper says. “You’ll be enjoying live jazz and then, suddenly, an aerial acrobat drops from the ceiling and performs a choreographed trapeze routine. It makes perfect sense to us.”

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