Even after 16 years as a tour guide, Josh Silver still breaks out in an irrepressible ear-to-ear grin when he discusses the history of Philadelphia.
He started in 1997 as a part-time guide at Clifton House — a historical home just outside of Philadelphia — and discovered he was a natural. Silver has an affinity for local history, combined with a habit of describing events and artifacts with strict precision: “My friend calls it my bow-tie way of talking,” he says with a laugh.
“The challenge for me is staying fresh. And that takes a lot of self-generated motivation,” explains Silver. “After a while you have a lot of material to lean on, but you’ve got to push yourself to keep learning and incorporating new things.”
Today Silver is one of the most sought-after guides in the city. But he still has to hustle to remain a full-time guide. There are few — if any — Philly tour guiding companies that offer full-time work, and almost all hire guides exclusively as freelancers. Silver has worked for almost every tour guiding company in the city, and currently rotates between two small for-profit companies and one nonprofit.
“It can be an excellent way to get some supplemental income with something that’s always challenging and keeps you learning,” says Silver. “But if you want to do it, I think the first step is coming out of your shell. There are monthly meetings of tour guides. There are tours offered every day. Get out there and start talking to people, because that’s a big requirement for the job.”
“It’s not like [a lot of service industry jobs] where you’re often treated poorly. Very simply, you know where to go and they don’t. You’ve got the inside scoop, so people don’t look down on you when you’re serving them.” New York tour guide Robert Westfield (www.robertwestfield.com)
“I saw a private guide repeatedly showing up with 30 or more tourists. It didn’t take long to do the math. That guide was nice enough to advise me, and soon I had my own business.” Tom Bernardin of Ellis Island Tours (www.ellisislandtours.com)