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Communities / Events / Good Works / Hardware

Iffy Books is here for Philly’s ‘old school hackers’

The Callowhill shop doesn't just sell books, zines and electronic gadgets. It's a community hub for socially minded technologists of all stripes.

The Philly 2600 meetup. (Photo by Sarah Huffman)
Where can you find Philly’s “hackers, phreaks, nerds, geeks, activists, tinkerers, developers, infosec professionals, and other interesting people”? The second floor of 319 N. 11th St.

Last Friday night, this reporter met just these folks at the Philly 2600 meetup hosted at Iffy Books in Callowhill. I was a bit worried I wouldn’t be able to find the store, but as I approached the address, flyers for the shop decorated every nearby electrical pole and a large sign pointed me to the right place.

I took the elevator up and entered a store full of books, zines, games and electronics. Off to one side of the room, about a dozen people gathered around tables to tinker with this tech and chat with each other.

Iffy Books owner Steve McLaughlin told the crowd that usually attends Philly 2600 are real “old school hackers.” Beyond this meetup, Iffy Books usually hosts five events per week, many of which focus on tech, writing, art and social justice issues.

Steve McLaughlin stands at the front of his store.

Mattie LaGro (L) and Steve McLaughlin. (Photo by Sarah Huffman)

“[A] bookstore is not just about books,” McLaughlin said. “It can also be a social space, a place to meet people, have conversations, overhear conversations, learn about what’s happening, make friends. So I like events for that reason.”

South Philly-based McLaughlin started the shop in July 2021, right after COVID-19 vaccines were made widely available.

“I felt like the culture … had been lying fallow for a while. People weren’t going out,” he said. “I saw an opportunity to build some culture myself, to make an intervention into the existing culture.”

McLaughlin’s background includes writing and art, but also computer science: He’s loved computers since he was a kid, researched audio machine learning in graduate school, and has experience working as a programmer. At one point, he had a job where he wrote the curriculum for middle and high school data science courses, which he enjoyed, but ultimately wanted to do more “on-the-ground work.”

He’d been to hacker and tech meetups, but wanted to create a tech community culture that was less corporate and more socially conscious. Enter: Iffy Books. The store carries books about the history of technology, books critiquing the tech industry, and books about climate change and other social justice issues. It also sells zines and electronics kits (and has been one home to the free-to-use payphone from Philly hackers’ PhilTel project).

The shop hosts its own original programming, but McLaughlin said groups like the Philly JavaScript Club started approaching him asking if the shop could host their meetups in the space. (Many of the events listed on the Philly Tech Calendar are at Iffy Books.)

Some of the events Iffy Books hosts are long running, such as Router Hack Days, where the group is working on installing open firmware called OpenWrt on old deadstock routers. Another group, Meshtastic, is working on building an alternative network in Philly by teaching people to use tiny radios that allow them to send encrypted text messages.

A table of electronics at Iffy Books

Electronics at Iffy Books. (Photo by Sarah Huffman)

Saianeesh Haridas has been coming to events at Iffy Books for a few months, and is now a regular at Philly 2600.

“The people you meet here are all generally very knowledgeable people, but they’re also very nice people,” Haridas said. “So you learn a lot about very specific technical things from the people here, and they’re always very happy to share this information with you.”

The shop hosts non-tech meetups as well, such as a writers group, soldering lessons and DJ mixing classes. McLaughlin noted that he tries to be consistent with creating and advertising the events schedule because it’s easier to meet people and make friends when you’re doing something regularly.

Britt Pezzillo has been involved in the Iffy Books community for a little over a year and attends the shop’s events often. They said it’s nice to be around like-minded people who care about technology and sustainability.

The meetups usually have a very loose structure, Pezzillo said. People will introduce themselves and what they’re working on that day and then they usually just chat, hang out and work.

“We’re here to share information. We’re here to build community. We’re here to spread the love, really,” Pezzillo said. “So if you’re kind of thinking about coming to an event like this, and you’re on the fence because you don’t feel like you’re gonna belong or you don’t feel like you’re gonna be able to pitch in, don’t worry about it. Just show up because there’ll be a lovely cohort of people here to welcome you.”

Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Series: Entertainment Tech Month 2023

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