(Above: From left: Greg Gillespie, Irish Edition writer Frank Dougherty, book dealer Dave Miller, and paranormal investigator John Levy discuss the weird occurrences taking place at Port Richmond Books. — Photo | Jim Talone)
By Frank Dougherty
Gregory Gillespie these days is trying to solve a mystery every bit as intriguing as the plots of the whodunits lining the shelves of his used book store in Port Richmond.
“Some customers suspect the 100-year-old silent movie house building we converted into Port Richmond Used Books is haunted. Maybe they have a point considering the unexplained noises I’ve heard here over the years,” explained Gillespie.
The building at 3037 Richmond Street in Philadelphia has a history of strange occurrences, especially, but not exclusively, at night, says Gillespie.
“Before we opened in 2006, I had two guys doing odd jobs, painting, putting up shelving. They were South Philadelphia guys, not the type to easily scare,” Gillespie recalled.
The project progressed during the day, but after working one night, one guy reported seeing shadows and hearing voices. His partner was skeptical at first, but then he, too, balked at working after sunset.
They finished the project working exclusively by day, warning Gillespie that something weird was going on at night inside his building.
A year or two ago Gillespie invited a teacher friend to select kiddy books from the stacks to read to his students in the shop’s “piano room,” a nook with furniture, rug and an antique piano.
“I heard him reading, then I heard nothing. When I checked the space, everybody had disappeared,” said Gillespie. Encountering his pal a few days later, the guy accused Gillespie of pranking the kids.
“He claimed a mysterious outbreak of wall banging and whispering that interrupted the story telling session so scared his students that they fled the building,” said Gillespie.
His pal thought the rout was staged, but Gillespie swears he played no role in frightening the tots. “It remains a mystery without an explanation.”
But Gillespie now thinks he has a ghost of a chance in resolving his dilemma. Olde City Paranormal Investigators, Philadelphia’s premier investigators of this world of whisper, are on his case.
He’s working with the best sleuths in the business on this book store caper. Some of paranormal investigators, who don’t charge or ask for a finder’s fee, are off-duty Philadelphia police officers.
“We’re not ghost hunters, nor are we ghost busters. We’re investigators who gather evidence and assemble facts,” explained policeman John Levy, cofounder of the group with civilian Steve Rotondi. “We’re trying to determine the who, what, why, when and where.”
A policeman for fifteen years, Levy is assigned to the Police Administration Building in Center City. Officer George Feinstein, a member of Mayor Nutter’s security detail, also works with Levy.
The investigators in January set up an array of infrared night vision cameras, digital recorders and electromagnetic field testers at two locations inside the building in hopes of documenting a finding.
“A recorder and a night vision camera were positioned close to the disassembled Moeller organ in the building’s auditorium,” said Levy. “Similar detection devices were set in the front of the building inside the old lobby.”
The mighty Moeller organ provided background music for silent films. It’s been in the auditorium since the theater opened 100 years ago.
Inside the lobby, Levy began to ask questions out loud, among them: “I’m from the neighborhood. Can you show me around?” Levy detected a hint of a response on the recorder, but further investigating will be required before a determination can be made.
“We believe we have a male’s voice, responding either yes or no but more research is in order. The organ was more promising. It produced a sounding,” he continued
Levy shared his ear phones with an Irish Edition writer so he, too, could evaluate the sounding. The finding suggested computer generated music; the type one hears as well as views on an oscillating video screen.
Until this January the sole reference to paranormal activity at the old Richmond Theater dates back to the 1940s when Casper the Friendly Ghost raced across its silver screen, frightening tots during Saturday matinee cartoon shows.
But that was Hollywood fantasy, much different from the cries and whispers Gillespie and the Olde City Paranormal investigators are trying to make sense of these days.
When queried on what prompted his interest in such an esoteric field, Levy said, “As a kid, I was interested in ghosts. As an adolescent, it was reading science fiction and watching TV programs on all things paranormal,” he explained.
Levy believes he shared a paranormal interaction with his late grandfather, according to a November 2012 interview with Philadelphia Daily News reporter Stephanie Farr.
While on patrol one night, while his family was down the shore, Levy stopped at his mother’s empty house in Port Richmond to use the bathroom.
Once inside, he spotted a figure slip into a room where his late grandfather used to sleep. The figure was his grandfather, dead for more than 20 years, swears Levy.
“There was no doubt in my mind it was him — his height, his walk, his stature — it was him,” he told the Daily News. Levy said the investigators would return later this year to Richmond Street when the weather gets warmer, to attempt more findings.
The investigators maintain an informational website at: www.oldecityparanormal.com.
Gillespie’s used book emporium sits inside a former nickelodeon dating back to a time when America’s emerging entertainment industry was supplying the world with silent films.
The Richmond Theater with its 1,026 seats began projecting the flickers in 1913 — the same year the US Mint here began producing a new five-cent nickel coin stamped with the image of an American Indian and a Great Plains bison.
“We have more than 125,000 books and collectible ephemera ranging from periodicals to posters to photographs,” said Gillespie. Now he’s wondering if phantoms and poltergeists are sharing space along his shelves.
For book worms of a certain age, his shop triggers an olfactory sensation dating back decades to Leary’s Used Books on South Ninth Street. Celebrated by book lovers worldwide, it’s the redolence of paper dust.
A retired City Hall environmental health inspector, Gillespie’s love of books dates back to a fondness for reading while still a child.
“I grew up collecting books. Then I met the late Jay Kogan. He introduced me to book fairs, which led to my life of buying, selling and trading books,” said Gillespie.
Jay Kogan’s widow, Deen, helped Gillespie set up his business. An ardent lover of books, Deen Kogan operates Society Hill Playhouse, a Philadelphia showcase for more than fifty years of stage productions with Irish themes.