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Moved by the bell

Travel Writing

This article was first published in the Times Online, on October 25, 2004

After 25 years of running The Travel Bookshop in west London, Sarah Anderson sold up and has taken off around the world with books for company. In her first dispatch, Sarah writes an e-mail from Philadelphia

Sarah Anderson I’ve been planning my belated ‘gap’ year for many months and it seems weird to actually be on the road: 25 years of the Travel Bookshop behind me and I am now about to test the books that I have been selling for so long and to try to link them with the places I visit.

I’m leaving behind a grey London day but hope that I won’t find Philadelphia as S.J. Perelman described it: ” … a metropolis sometimes known as the City of Brotherly Love, but more accurately as the City of Bleak November Afternoons”. Somewhat more tempting is Charles Dickens‘ description in his American Notes: “It is a handsome city, but distractingly regular. After walking about it for an hour or two, I felt that I would have given the world for a crooked street”.

Philadelphia is a walker’s paradise with “unique appeal to the meditative stroller,” conceived by William Penn around a centre square with four other squares equidistant from the centre with streets crossing at right angles. The Barclay Condominium in Rittenhouse Square, where I am staying, is a building that used to be a hotel and has now been turned into apartments, around the corner from Panama Street where Brian and Robin lived in Jonathan Franzen‘s hugely successful novel The Corrections (2001), a novel about a dysfunctional American family. Much of this novel is set in Philly – Gary and Caroline live in Chestnut Hill with its maples, gingkos and sycamores: “the enchanted arboreality of Chestnut Hill”. But as in many cities the districts change remarkably quickly from rich to poor – in The Corrections, Robin started a garden project in Point Breeze, a blighted section a mile south of where she lives – and the friend with whom I am staying is a 10-minute cycle ride from a very deprived school where she works.

After a morning at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where I wander among Impressionists, Medieval European and Asian art, I look for a buzzy place to have lunch, in part to disprove Mark Twain‘s comment: “[Benjamin] Franklin was sober because he lived in Philadelphia. Why, Philadelphia is a sober city today … Why, it is as good as Sunday to be in Philadelphia now”.

The Lonely Planet Guide to Philadelphia has very few suggestions for the kind of sandwich or salad lunch I’m after and so I walk through the financial district until I find Paninoteca at 120 South 18th Street – it is sober to the extent that no one drinks at lunchtime – but although rather dark is obviously a popular place.

Later I am taken to La Colombe at Rittenhouse Square and 19th, reputedly the best independent coffee shop in town, where students sit with their lap tops and I realize it is almost impossible to discover the best cafes and restaurants as an ignorant tourist: guide books are inevitably out of date by the time they are published and people in the know will have moved on by the time the tourists start descending.

I am thrilled to be told about Joseph Fox, a bookshop  (1724 Sansom Street, +1 215 563 4184, where the staff know their stock and recommend The Doctor Digs a Grave by Robin Hathaway (1998) a mystery set in the wealthy environs of Philly’s Society Hills. I love wandering the streets that Hathaway writes about – Walnut Street, Washington Square, Spruce … but I also do the tourist thing and go and see the Liberty Bell, the bell that was rung on all important occasions, the most important being at the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence.

The bell is much smaller than I had imagined but I also found it unexpectedly moving with its inscription “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”. It was cast in England and is rather squat with a crack – unlike many of Philly’s buildings that are not only very grand but have a remarkably solid feel to them.

Dickens was horrified by his visit to the Eastern State Penitentiary, the prison where they invented solitary confinement and where Al Capone was later imprisoned, but my feelings after a few days here are much more on a par with Henry James: “I liked poor, dear, queer flat comfortable Philadelphia almost ridiculously”.