Getting Lost in Baldwin's Book Barn
My experience in a unique indie bookstore near Philadelphia, PA
The following is a guest post by Jayme of My Musical Odyssey. All photos were taken by her and shared with her permission.
I love books. I mean, that’s no surprise, since this is a post on a book and travel blog, but lately, buying them has become a bit of an obsession that started with seeing a post on Instagram about Baldwin’s Book Barn. It was late on a Friday night, and this beautiful, unique indie bookstore appeared on my feed. Turns out it was only an hour and a half away! Luckily, I had nothing scheduled the next day, so it seemed like the perfect place to go.
The Book Barn is located in West Chester, Pennsylvania just around the corner from West Chester University and about an hour's drive from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It's one of those hidden gems that unless you were really searching for cool bookstores near Philadelphia, you'd never know it's there.
The building itself was built in 1822, making it almost 200 years old! It originally served as the site for the Darlington family's successful dairy business. Later, members of the Baldwin family established their “used book and collectibles business” in 1934, moving it to The Barn in 1946. And while it may not be the oldest bookshop I’ve ever visited (Brattle Book Shop in Boston was established in 1825), it certainly has the most character!
The Book Barn is a giant barn, though it doesn’t feel like it once you get inside; inside is more of a maze of books, with each room feeling a bit tight because of how many shelves of books are crammed inside of each room.
This is an ideal bookstore to visit if you love getting lost in the stacks, but probably not a great stop if you’re claustrophobic. (I did actually hear someone requesting to wait outside but insisting the person they were with should take their time).
The bookstore’s website mentions lots of "nooks for reading," but I think they must mean that you can read anywhere. There are old chairs and benches stashed wherever they fit: on the landing of the stairs, in the corner in front of a shelf, or even in the middle of an aisle.
The Book Barn's layout is deceptive, because just when you think you’re at the end of the room you suddenly realize there’s another room to your left. Or another room to your right. Or both! The number of books was almost overwhelming and, every time I came into a room, it took me a moment to process what I was seeing.
Luckily, there is a map of the barn's many rooms of books near the register when you first enter, but I didn't know that on my first visit.
When I first visited in January, I saw books of almost every genre, but I hadn’t seen many fiction books, which seemed unbelievable. After two and a half hours of wandering higher and higher, all the way up to one of the wings of the fourth floor, I was about to give up on finding a fiction section. I wandered back down to the third floor and noticed a door. A sign on a door said that Modern Fiction lay behind it and to not prop it open because of cold.
True to the unique character of this bookstore, keep in mind you are browsing in a literal barn, so bundle up if you visit during the winter!
The first time I went, I wished I’d worn wool socks and gloves. It was that freezing!
When I got downstairs to purchase my books, the cashier said, “Oh. You got this one from the cold room.”
When I came back to the Book Barn in February, I was better prepared. I left with a huge stack of books, and the manager was so nice. Instead of charging more for the two books that were priced higher than the rest of my stack, she charged me the same for them. She let me know there were boxes of free books outside, and I grabbed a couple more on my way out. She also asked where I was from and got excited when I said Princeton, NJ. She ran to another room and brought back a book about Morven Gardens that someone had just brought in.
It was just one of those wonderful, locally-owned bookstore experiences. I left feeling great!
If you're looking for unique bookstores with a lot of character in the Philadelphia area, definitely make a trip to Baldwin Book Barn.
Tips for visiting the Book Barn
Winter time? Dress warmly! Gloves aren't a bad idea here.
Allow yourself plenty of time to get lost in the stacks of this bookstore. It's not a place to rush through.
When you arrive, make sure you know what time they close! This old building doesn't have modern amenities like an intercom system to announce closing time, and while it's a great place to get lost, getting stuck is another thing entirely! Google maps seems to have the most updated hours, as they don't appear to update their website regularly.
Pin this for your next trip to the Philadelphia area!