In memoriam: Madeline Fox (1923–2020) - Chris Bartlett
One of the things I love about Philadelphia is Philadelphians. Those true Philadelphians who blend a mix of joy, cynicism, clever wit, and deep wisdom. I’m sad to hear tonight that my old friend Madeline Fox, a consummate bookseller and a true Philadelphian if there ever was one, has died. She was 96.
I met Madeline at least 25 years ago behind the counter of the Joseph Fox Bookstore, at 1724 Sansom Street. She ruled that wonderful place and helped to establish its atmosphere and spirit.
I’ll deviate from her eulogy for just a moment to say that Joseph Fox Bookstore is a true one-of-a-kind gem of a book shop. I often take out-of-town friends there and share with them my deeply held belief: that each time you enter that bookstore, the bookshelves are magically arranged to show you the books that you are meant to read. How else could Woolf, Caro and Nussbaum wink out at me every time from the shelves?
Soon after I discovered the bookstore, sometime in the 90s, I also discovered Madeline, who had managed the bookstore with her husband, the eponymous Joseph, for years until his death in 1998. Madeline was clearly a force of nature who knew all the shelves and could direct you to what you should read, even if you didn’t know it yet. Upon entering, in the early days, she often gave me a withering look combining “what fresh hell is this?” with “do you really understand what this bookstore is about?” This made me love her even more.
That was how I read her looks anyway. And I have a long history of being charmed by women who, at least apparently, are not going to be easy to get to know and certainly don’t want to be your friend until you have earned it. I entered the bookstore for at least two years and would greet her, “Good afternoon Mrs. Fox.” “Good to see you Mrs. Fox,” with not even the slightest of smiles returned. I was often delegated to one of the young women booksellers who, though also charming and smart, did not have the attractive disdain that made me covet Madeline’s affection, especially when the friendship was unrequited.
One day, two or three years into regular visits, I entered again and said, “Good afternoon, Mrs. Fox.” She looked up for just a second and said, “I’m Madeline, who are you?” As if she had <never> seen me before. And from that day forward our friendship took off with high velocity.
I learned a lesson, there in my late 20s, that a good friendship was worth waiting for It was worth the persistence and steady commitment that said to someone like Madeline, who had seen many people breeze through the welcoming doors of the book shop, that this fellow is worth my time.
From then on, I had graduated to using her first name. “Good afternoon, Madeline.” “Good afternoon, Chris.” And we would talk books.
She introduced me to whole genres of books that I would come to love. One that I remember in particular was letters and correspondence, the more unknown, the better. Fox Bookstore had a great collection of these (probably because she loved them so much.) When I would arrive, she would have some new collection of letters to excite me, and I would always buy them and love them. She started me on the multi-volume Lyttleton/Hart Davis letters, which kept me going for at least a year. Then she recommended more letters once she knew she had me hooked.
Her imprimatur meant the world. She also turned me on to the short stories of Sholem Aleichem, essays on improvisation and jazz, new Jane Jacob essays (“maybe you’ll like them…”) and Alex Ross.
She also knew what I loved, and would let me know about anything that involved Beethoven, or Sontag, or the very geeky and interesting world of piano practice (of which much has been written.) She was deeply interested in worlds outside of her own, though Joseph Fox Bookstore never expanded its collection much in the direction of queer writings — and she would do her best to be interested when I shared these worlds with her.
When I became director of William Way LGBT Community Center, she congratulated me. Every once in a while she would send a queer reader (in both senses) my way for recommendations.
Once, when the bookstore was empty, a rarity, I asked her about her background. She had grown up in Mahanoy City, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Her father Ellis and mother Elizabeth owned a furniture store in that city, in the heart of Pennsylvania’s southern coal country. According to newspapers of the times, Madeline’s parents faced a few crises in Mahanoy City, including a terrible December, 1924 fire that burned their store and many others on its block to the ground (this was the year that she was born.) There was insurance, but not enough. I asked Madeline what life was like for Jews in the coal country, and she said that there was a thriving community of Jews, and a synagogue, Beth Israel.
Probably to Madeline’s advantage, her family soon moved to West Philadelphia, and she graduated from West Philadelphia High at age 16 in 1940. You can see her high school graduation photo below — her eyes already heading towards the steely gaze I would come to know.
I send my deepest condolences to her son Michael, and his wonderful wife Judi, who currently keep the magical bookstore alive more than ever. Condolences also to all of her relatives, including her granddaughter Avi, who wrote a terrific obit here:
And here is the Inquirer’s wonderful obit by Bonnie L. Cook: https://www.inquirer.
For a number of years now, she had lived in her top story apartment at the William Penn House. I’m sad that I never got to say goodbye and tell her what an impact she had on my reading and my life. But I’m so glad I hung in there to reach the point where I know she considered me a friend, as I did her.
Her memory is a blessing.