What makes a business successful? Business owners who are passionate about their products, their customers, and making it succeed.
Joe Ankenbrand embodies all of these qualities. He is a co-owner of Molly’s Books and Records, a used book and record store in the 9th Street Italian Market, with his wife Molly, the store’s namesake.
Ankenbrand has been buying records since 1964 and does not plan on stopping anytime soon. He works as the full-time record buyer and seller for the store, and even lives upstairs! Speaking with Ankenbrand provided a lot of insight as to what makes 9th Street so wonderful from both a business and personal aspect.
Read my Q & A with Ankenbrand to find out what his most memorable experiences on 9th Street and why used book and record stores aren’t just for record geeks!
Note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How long have you been working at Molly’s Books and Records?
Where are you from originally?
Philly. The Olney section.
Do you still live in the area?
Molly and I are married and we live upstairs from the store.
Tell me about Molly’s: the everyday business and its history.
Molly is a third generation bookseller. She purchased the property approximately 15 years ago; and it has been a bookstore, it has been a whole foods store, and when I met her, she had gone out of business and was getting back into business as a bookstore. We started doing records as well as books.
It was known as Molly’s Café, Bella Vista Natural Foods, and Molly’s Café and Bookstore. It’s been Molly’s Books and Records for six years. I met Molly because I had another job that brought me into the area and I used to come in here to look for books. She had gotten couple of crates of records that she didn’t know what to do with, and I knew her brother. She knew that I was interested in records and she asked me to help price them, so that’s how we met. We became a couple first, and then we became business partners. It’s quite a story. We’ll be married two years this April.
Walk me through a typical day for you.
Basically I roll out of bed, roll down the steps, and open the store. What we love about the market is that if we want fresh fruit or a newspaper, we just go up the street. Any supplies that we need for the store, we can pretty much get right in the neighborhood. I usually open the store, and it’s basically just preparing items that we go out and find. Since we sell all used merchandise, and we don’t sell anything new, we need to go out and find the merchandise. When we’re not actually going out to locate stock for the store, we need to prepare it for sale. That includes pricing, cleaning, basically keeping shop. I come in, flip on the jukebox, put out the merchandise for the sidewalk sale out on the sidewalk, and wait for people to come in.
Why 9th Street? Are there any other locations of this shop?
We had an outlet store on Passyunk Avenue for about a year and a half, but we decided having two stores was too complicated so we ditched the other place. Molly has been living in the Italian Market for 35 years.
What is your favorite thing about working here at Molly’s?
Owning the place is part of the charm. It’s a little different when you own a store as opposed to working in it. We take a lot of pride in just making it the best store possible. When Molly and I started this place together, we said we wanted the best little store in the world. For instance, we don’t put anything online. Anything a customer wants can be found right in the store. We love the earthiness of 9th Street; Molly has always loved it. I came here from another place, and what I love about it is that everyone is very, very friendly on this street. There’s something kind of indescribable about the personal connection that we feel with the other people on the street. We kind of feel like we’re all in it together. We try to support all of the other merchants as much as possible.
Since this is a book and record store, what is your favorite book?
Well, right now I’m reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, and usually my favorite book is the one I’m reading at the time. One of my all-time favorites is Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe. Those two are definite favorites, but some authors I like are Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, and David Goodis, who was a Philadelphia author. He wrote a lot of crime fiction.
Do you get to read a lot while you’re working?
No, I don’t have time.
What is your favorite record or album?
Oh good Lord. Let’s just say I started buying records in 1964, and I pretty much never stopped, even when the CD revolution hit. So I’ve been able to provide myself with a lot of entertainment throughout the years. I’ve always been a Beatles fan. I love music from the 60s, whether it’s garage rock or psych, most 60s music are definitely favorites. If I had to pick some of my top records, Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys and 12 X 5 by the Rolling Stones, because that was the first record I ever bought.
Do you have a lot of regular customers? What keeps them coming back here?
One rule of business is that you should know the names of your top five customers. I think we know the names of our top 20. We have very loyal customers. One of the things that we’ve tried to do, especially by not putting anything online – this is something that Molly and I tried to do consciously – is have all of our best merchandise available in the store for our customers. We put an emphasis on quality – we may be the only used record store with a return policy. Quality and price are the most important things. For customer service, we keep a ‘want list’ for people and when I’m out looking for records, I’m actually shopping for my customers.
How do you go about looking for records?
That’s a full-time job, believe it or not. I don’t know what I’m doing sitting here right now; I should be out looking for records. It’s a combination of things: we do auctions, estate sales, flea markets. We have feelers out in the closest four states. I’ve been buying records since 1964, so I try to make a store that I would want to go in and an environment that people would want to go in and feel welcome. Whether they’re looking for a rare jazz record or their favorite Billy Joel record from high school, I try to treat every customer like their wants are respected. It’s not just for record geeks, in other words.
So the everyday person shouldn’t feel intimidated walking in here?
Record stores are a funny thing. There is, of course, a ‘record store vibe’ that even I feel when I walk into places, like it’s a clique or something. But we get a lot of tourists through the area, and we want the folks who come in with their families to feel just as welcome as the local record geeks. And having been a record geek, it’s ok to be one. I love record store people, but I want to make it comfortable for everybody.
Vinyl records are having a resurgence of sorts. What are your thoughts on that?
There are a lot of people who are just getting into vinyl. There’s definitely been a resurgence over the past five years or so. And there are a lot of people who feel intimidated, because they don’t know what to look for or how to really shop for records. We try to make them feel comfortable and give them information on where to find turntables and things like that which accompany the records we sell in the store that they might not quite know how to go about finding.
In what ways has working at Molly’s on 9th Street positively affected your life?
It’s really just a great neighborhood. Everybody’s friendly and we all help each other out and look out for each other. It’s been a positive, in a sense, to feel a part of a business community and part of a neighborhood. There’s more of a human connection here.
In what ways has working at Molly’s on 9th Street negatively affected your life?
Let’s put in this way: I moved here after living in Collingswood, New Jersey for 20 years, so I was used to the singing of birds in the morning. Now I wake up to the sound of chainsaws as the vendors across the street cut up wood for their bonfires. Something negative about the area is that there’s too much trash in the streets and the lighting at night is terrible, so it doesn’t make businesses very inviting in the evening. It doesn’t have to be that way, though.
What is your most memorable experience working in the store?
Getting married here. Molly and I got married right in front of the jukebox with her parents and her kids present. We married ourselves; we got a Quaker license, so we didn’t need a minister or anything. Then we went down to Villa Di Roma for dinner, stayed right in the neighborhood. I would say if there was something else, it was when Jerry Blavat did a book signing here a couple of years ago. It was just really delightful to have him in the store. Another memorable experience was when my band, Dixy Blood, played outside of the store during the Italian Market festival a couple years ago. We’re kind of punk-rockabilly, we just put out two CDs and played in New York the other day. I’ve been playing drums since the 60s with lots of different bands, but playing outside the store during the Italian Market festival was really a hoot.
Describe 9th Street in three words.
“It’s Philly, yo.”
How about with three adjectives?
Friendly is the one that comes to mind the most for me. It’s profitable, good for business. There’s a lot of variety, it’s multi–cultural. Where are my poet wife and English major employee when I’m in need of an adjective?
Do you have any closing words?
You know, I think 9th Street is a block with a lot of history. It still has so much potential and if it got cleaned up, it could be even better than it is. I know it’s a good tourist destination because it’s real earthy, and it has a real Philly feel to it. It’s a really wonderful place, but I know it can be even better. I’m just so happy to have my business and my home here.