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Making and Re-Making Midtown: The Midtown Scholar

Written by Cary Burkett, Arts & Culture Desk and witf Host | Oct 15, 2015 2:10 PM
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The building at the corner of Verbeke and Third Street in Harrisburg's Midtown neighborhood has a green-and-red striped awning with yellow letters across its border that proclaim:  Midtown Scholar - One of America's Great Independent Bookstores.

Longtime Midtown resident Frank Hummel is sitting outside. He loves the bookstore. "It's a shining light. It's a beacon, " he says.

The store is actually a series of interconnected buildings. The main section was once a 1920's era cinema . An old art-deco neon sign is above the main entrance, although it doesn't flash.

Just inside there's a coffee bar. And there are books of course, in shelves all along the walls and in recessed alcoves. There are sections of handsomely-bound sets of classics and sections of used paperbacks.  Doorways open into rooms full of more books. Steps lead down to a lower level, with rows of more fully-packed bookcases. 

An ornate iron staircase leads to an upper gallery. It holds yet more books from many different eras -poetry, drama, music - and comfortable reading areas with padded leather chairs right out of a 1920's detective novel.

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 A Rare Book section is on the lowest level. There's a children's section next to the bakery bar, which has its own entrance.

By all accounts, the Midtown Scholar has had a tremendous impact on this neighborhood.  But just how did this remarkable bookstore end up here?

 The story begins at Yale University where two bookworm academics met as graduate students.  He was Eric Papenfuse, studying American history. She was Catherine Lawrence, studying British history.  Sparks flew when they discovered their mutual love of books.

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Eric Papenfuse

Papenfuse smiles as he recalls, "When we first met, she was the only person up to that time that I had met who had more books than I did."

Lawrence is quick to point out that they were all bought second hand, at library book sales.

They studied books and bookmaking in their courses. "When we were in graduate school," Papenfuse says, "our favorite pastime was to go on sort of weekend excursions and go used-book-hunting."

It wouldn't have been hard to predict that Eric Papenfuse and Catherine Lawrence would get married. And it wouldn't have taken a crystal ball to guess that they might someday found a bookstore together.  It would have been tougher to foresee that Eric Papenfuse would become the mayor of Harrisburg.

He states, "It was something that I had no interest in when I was in graduate school or moving on. I wanted to run a business, I wanted to teach, I wanted to read books. I did not want to go into politics. My venture into politics has come out of my civic involvement, which has been born of the bookstore."

It all comes back to the bookstore.  But when the couple moved to the Harrisburg area in 1999, their plans were to be teachers. She had just landed a job at Messiah College teaching British history. 

Still, when they got to their new home, Papenfuse remembers, "We were shocked to find that there was really no bookstore in the capital of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania."

One thing led to another, and they began to research the possibility of establishing a bookstore. They looked at different locations in Harrisburg. Some real estate agents actually discouraged them from looking within the city proper.  But one of them, Ray Thorne, helped them find a rundown property in Midtown, which had been the old Midtown Post Office.

The two reminisce about the poor shape of the building which would become the first location for the Midtown Scholar. They recall the graffiti, the holes in the roof, the gray, peeling paint.

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Catherine Lawrence

Lawrence says, "We would not have recognized on our own that it could be just what we needed. It provided a really quaint, charming space like a Georgetown/DC type of walk-up bookshop."

Papenfuse chimes in, "There was even a little loading dock on the back, and we wouldn't have looked there had it not been for the Midtown Cinema. I think that's a really important point."

The Midtown Cinema helped bring the Midtown Scholar to the area. It marked an important milestone in the changing face of the community.  Many at the time had all but given up on the neighborhood, including the family that was selling the building.

"They were so down on the area," says Papenfuse, "that they could only conceive of us opening an adult book store. That's literally what they said. And we said, 'no it's going to be a scholarly book store'. And they had no idea what to make of that."

But the couple had a very clear idea of what they wanted to make of it. From the beginning, even at this first location at the old Midtown post office, the vision was for a bookstore that would be a community gathering place.

Lawrence wanted it to be, "a bookstore where you communicate with other customers while you're there, and have a common and community discussion."

Papenfuse expands, "We wanted a location where people could talk about books, where they could have intellectually engaged ideas about all sorts of issues of the day.

The store seemed to meet a need in the community. At a time when many other  bookstores were closing down as sales moved online, The Midtown Scholar expanded. It quickly outgrew the location at the old post office. It moved to the much larger current building in 2009.

 The bookstore's impact in the community has been felt in wide-ranging ways. Mayor Papenfuse cites the founding of the Friends of Midtown as an example.

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"That was an idea that was born at the Midtown Scholar," he says. "And Friends of Midtown today has become a sort of foundational non-profit for the neighborhood that involves a lot of people in everything from economic development to beautification."

The bookstore was also among the first to host political debates, candidates nights and forums on civic issues.  Lawrence points out that many art groups regularly meet at the Scholar.

"We have a group called Art Kaleidoscope in which you have art critique groups, we have an association of graphic designers that meets several times a month, poetry cartels and poetry groups...there are a lot of folks who find this as a great meeting place from around the region to come and talk about the arts or participate in the arts."

The monthly artwalk known as Third and the Burg had its beginning at the bookstore.

Papenfuse says, "These were different things that were larger than the Midtown Scholar that really represented collaboration and an effort to community build and create a new business district for Midtown."

"And an arts district," Lawrence adds, "specifically a business and arts district."

The Midtown Scholar has fulfilled the goal of being a community gathering place for diverse groups. And all the groups meet surrounded by the books. The books become a symbol for ideas and conversation.

"We believe books transform," says Lawrence. "Ideas change people's minds and affect people's directions and sensibilities - tie people together or fracture them apart - and so, books transform."         

The vision of Mayor Eric Papenfuse and Catherine Lawrence for a bookstore called the Midtown Scholar has also had a transforming role, helping change the face of the community where it is located.  

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