During his stint as a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the 1970s, David Lynch became so obsessed with the disquieting oddness that seemed to flow through the streets of Philadelphia like expurgated cheesesteak grease that he was inspired to create Eraserhead. That, my friends, is just how much the City of Brotherly Love can fuck with you. As a lifelong resident of Philly, I just take the town’s weirdness for granted. It’s as much of part of daily life here as Tastykakes and angry sport fans. Yet in recent years I have noticed that the ever-present strangeness of the city–a phenomenon I chalk up to as a byproduct of Philadelphia’s rich historical, cultural and industrial histories–has mutated into a fertile breeding ground for nerdery. These days Philly is overflowing with tech companies, comic stores, bars/restaurants and other business run by geeks, for geeks. It’s a great time to live there…or at least visit. So for this installment of Topless Robot Road Trips, we are going to hop on I-95 and check out the nerdiest places Philadelphia has to offer. The city may not have Lynchian chicken babies, but there’s still plenty of odd and wondrous sites to check out. Here’s 15 of my favorites.
15) The Basement of The Garden of Earthly Delights on Any Given Weekend
In the Northeast section of the city lies the aptly named Garden of Earthly Delights, a cavernous space dedicated to comics/sport cards/collectibles/gaming/whatever that is seemingly forever stuck in 1989. Such reliable familiarity is a glorious thing, and part of the reason why the store is packed on the weekends with people looking for everything from the latest DC and Marvel offerings to the oddball comics like The Adventures of Kool Aid Man that garnish the bargain bins. Yet the biggest appeal of this four-color wonderland might be the basement. Jammed with hundreds of back issues and everything from forgotten VHS tapes to old McDonald’s glasses for sale, this musty haven gives refuge to Magic the Gathering and other CCG enthusiasts who fill the space to near capacity every Saturday and Sunday. Sure, there’s plenty of other spots in Philly where these types of games can be played, but for some reason this particular spot–with its hastily thrown down tables and chairs, decimated pizza boxes and a diverse assortment of clientele–feels so right. It’s old school nerdery at its finest…and something to treasure.
14) Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens
If R.E.M. were based out of Philadelphia rather than Athens, Georgia, chances are they probably would have written a song about Isaiah Zagar. A prolific folk artist whose unqiue mosiac work can be glimpsed throughout the city, Zagar is the increasingly rare example of a figure whose work is appreciated by critics and the masses alike. His masterpiece is Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, a maze-like triumph located on the city’s legendary South Street (and, it’s worth noting, one of the few remaining worthwhile things to see there). Fusing his works with everyday items like mirrors and bottles, Zagar has created a unique artistic landscape that you can easily spend hours wandering around in.
13) The Liberty Bell
Obviously a huge part of Philly’s appeal is its historical significance. So this list would be utterly worthless if it didn’t feature at least one traditional tourist attraction, so by all means check out the Liberty Bell you history-shunning heathens. Not only is it remarkable to witness in person, but it is amongst our greatest enduring symbols of freedom. Duh. Plus, there’s some really stellar hot dog carts nearby. Just saying.
12) The Franklin Fountain
You’d be forgiven if the above video segment from Man vs. Food makes you think that The Franklin Fountain is the most hipster-baiting place this side of Williamsburg. But the flavor is what matters most here. This spot in Philly’s Old City neighborhood deliberately recreates the experience of an old-timey ice cream shop so perfectly that you may find yourself having a hankering for some barbershop quartet music. Okay, probably not. But there is a delicate art to the ice cream dishes and sodas being sold that makes the Franklin Fountain feel like a place out of time. Beyond the carefully crafted facial hair of some of the servers lies a true passion and appreciation for crafting delicious ice cream dishes that are more than just mere dessert, but genuinely unforgettable.Try the pumpkin ice cream, and tell ’em Topless Robot sent you.
11) Pizza Brain
Speaking of food, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Philly is also home to the world’s only Pizza museum–Pizza Brain. This cozy spot is wall-to-wall pizza memorabilia, featuring everything from the requisite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles merchandise to a impressive wall full of pizza-referencing comic covers. (Including plenty of old Jughead issues, natch). In a large space that connects Pizza Brain to the equally impressive Little Baby’s Ice Cream parlor (which brought this viral nightmare into the world) you’ll find various items on display that illustrate the profound ways in which pizza has permeated nearly every aspect of our lives. Seriously. And yes, Pizza Brain also serves up its own slices. Trust me, you’ll be jonesing for them by the time you finish touring the museum.
10) The Heart at the Franklin Institute
Deep in the bowels of the otherwise innocuous science museum known as the Franklin Institute lies a larger-than-life replica of the human heart that visitors can walk through. Sounds like a neat way to learn about how the body works, right? WRONG! What the above video doesn’t show you is how this Innerspace-esque tourist spot is sheer horror for kids forced to confront its terror year after year on countless class trips that cause them to wake up with night sweats and the sound of endless thump-thump-thumping decades later. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.
9) National Mechanics
Okay here’s the deal, National Mechanics is a tremendous bar/restaurant whose commitment to nerdery can be experienced through their monthly Science on Tap events. But the true appeal of this place are how it presents the opportunity to take home the ultimate Philadelphia souvenir. You see, nearly every drink served at National Mechanics comes in a pint glass featuring an illustration of a famous/infamous Philadelphian.(Everyone from Bill Cosby to Philly serial killer Gary Heidnik). These aren’t available for sale, so you’ll have to do some begging to score one, but tossing your pride is a small price to pay to have some glassware this cool.
8) Brave New Worlds
Want proof that Jeff Albertson is no longer an accurate depiction of Comic Book Guys? Then head into Philly’s Brave New Worlds store. Not only will the employees not mock you for your endless Archie comics purchases, but they are genuinely friendly and will give you recommendations that are always spot on. Located a few minutes walk from the Betsy Ross House, Elfreth’s Alley, and Independence Hall. BNW offers an oasis of geekiness in the midst of the city’s most historic sites. Best of all, they carry an assortment of locally produced indie comics that make unique souvenirs that will be remembered way more than a Liberty Bell shot glass. (Still not as great as a Cosby pint glass though).
7)The Rosenbach Museum and Library
Those still bummed about the passing of Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak earlier this year will pleased to know that his works live on at The Rosenbach Museum and Library. The museum–which also showcases rare books and documents such as the original handwritten manuscript of Ulysses–is highlighted by the world’s largest collection of Sendak material, including many original illustrations. Sendak was a longtime supporter of the museum, and worked extensively with the facility’s curators throughout his lifetime to provide them with exclusive material such as the video interview you see above. A huge part of the appeal to visiting the quaint Rosenbach is to gain insight into how Sendak approached his craft–allowing visitors to reflect upon the myriad ways his work touched their lives in the process. Wild rumpusing is included with the admission price.
6) The Hacktory
Declaring its mission statement to be “repurposing technology, making art,” The Hacktory has been providing Philly hackers, makers and doers with the chance to create and share their visions of a better future with the world since 2007. By offering a weekly open house and educational outreach programs to “inspire and empower people to use technology for their own personal expression,” the collective affords thinkers the perfect location to make their scientific dreams come true. While their schedule of events fluctuates, be sure to check their website during your next visit to Philadelphia and you may just find yourself learning about everything from robotics to ways you can make your own cider. It seems that nerdiness makes one thirsty.
Once a cemetery supply showroom, PhilaMOCA–the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art–is now one of the city’s coolest performance venues. The past year has seen everything from a David Lynch tribute to nerdy burlesque shows to a wrestling-themed art show that came complete with appearances from Chikara grabblers and acoustic performances of wrestling themes. Director of programming Eric Bresler is constantly trying to raise the bar for interesting film, performance and art events at PhilaMOCA, which often spawns events rich with the type of freakiness that would put a smile on Henry Spencer’s face. Speaking of which, you can see a massive mural of the Eraserhead protagonist on the side of the PhilaMOCA building, a constant reminder of the venue’s commitment to keeping Philly weird. In heaven, everything is fine indeed.
4) Torchwood Market
Why is there a market named after everybody’s favorite secret agency/Doctor Who spinoff located at 303 N. 3rd Street? No one seems to know, but it’s just comforting to know it’s there. Come to think of it, there have been a lot of Weevils wandering around Philly of late…
3) Locust Moon Comics Festival
If you happen to be in Philly on October 5th, you definitely need to check out the Locust Moon Comics Festival. An offshoot of the popular comic store/gallery space in University City, this fest–now in its second year–brings together local artists and national industry figures for an event that offers a much-needed alternative to huge cons. The owners of the shop are the men responsible for last year’s amazing Once Upon a Time Machine compilation from Dark Horse, and they have used their cred to lineup an array of guests that includes Farel Dalrymple, Michael Kupperman and Jay Lynch as well as Philly comic staples like Jeffro Kilpatrick and Box Brown. This event is about creativity, not commerce, and it is the perfect example of how welcoming Philly’s comic scene is to all.
2) The Bizarre Bazaar/Professor Ouch’s Odditorium
A few blocks off of South Street lies a combination of thrift store and sideshow museum that is hand’s down the coolest shop in all of Philadelphia. I am speaking of course about Bizarre Bazaar/Professor Ouch’s Odditorium. Taking its name from the store’s genial owner (a legendary Philly tattoo artist named Joe Shipley who also goes by the moniker Furry Couch), this marvel is likely the only place on Earth where you can buy a Westworld bumper sticker from the 1970s, a Gremlins lunchbox and a full size carnival fun house mirror. Knowledgeable about everything from sideshow history to hot rod culture, Shipley is a friendly and fascinating figure whose colorful presence gives the space true personality. The back of the store serves as a sort of ad hoc sideshow history museum, paying tribute to the glory days of freak show Americana. It’s a truly wonderful and original space, and one that has more than just a little in common with the place that claims the top spot on this list…
1)The M?tter Museum
Marvelous and macabre, the M?tter Museum is easily the creepiest place in Philadelphia. (Take it from a local, that’s saying a lot). Part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the Museum is packed with old medical instruments, preserved body parts and other items that will either make you compelled or nauseous. While medical students regularly come here to learn about the various ways the human body can go wrong, even more visit to gawk at the freak show spectacle of figures such as the “Soap Lady,” a woman whose mouth is contorted into an eternal scream and whose body tissue has transformed into a soap-like substance. Then there are the tumors on display. And the giant colon that was filled with so much undisposed poo that it killed the person it belonged to. Looking for a lifesize replica of famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng? The M?tter has you covered. Exhibitions like the forthcoming “Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits: Injury, Death & Healing in Civil War Philadelphia” add to the Debbie Downer feel of the place. Still, all of the grotesque displays within the museum are treated with respect and dignity, giving the M?tter more of a clinical atmosphere than a sideshow one. Well, at least until you get in the gift shop and see the Soap Lady hand soaps available for purchase. Wow.