On the eve of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the Penguin Bookshop opened, and prospered for decades. But several years ago, the store began to run into trouble. The store, located in Sewickley, Pa. (pop. 3,900), near Pittsburgh, was rescued by new owners in August 2007, who closed it and invested more than $1 million to completely renovate the shop. Coincidentally, the refurbished store opened in the midst of another down cycle, September 2008. Co-owner Janet McDanel concedes that she and her husband, Bud McDanel, might not have gone through with their ambitious plans to turn the Penguin Bookshop into a fully green independent bookstore had the depth of the economic slide been apparent a year and a half ago.
“Today, we’d be afraid to take on this venture,” she said. They rebuilt the store according to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) specs, using only local, recycled and certified green material. In addition to using bricks that matched the building’s original facade, dating from the early 1900s, they installed energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, a full kitchen, a bike rack and an employee shower. McDanel anticipates getting official LEED certification later this spring.
The McDanels’s financial adviser, Karen Fadzen, who oversaw the purchase and renovations and directs the store, encouraged the McDanels, who have been retired since they sold their porcelain tubing business 20 years ago, to buy the Penguin Bookshop as a way of helping their community, instead of creating a foundation. Sewickley has lost eight mainstay downtown businesses over the past two years.
So far, the numbers are bearing out Fadzen’s passionate defense of the store and its role in the community. “You can’t believe the thanks we’ve received,” said McDanel. “People are so happy to have their bookshop back. That’s been inspirational.” And potentially profitable, or at least self-supporting. “We’ve already surpassed annual sales on the best year [for the old store],” said Fadzen, who cautions that she has no benchmark for sales in the new 3,200-sq.-ft. selling space spread over two floors.
Although neither the McDanels nor Fadzen had retail experience, they sought out booksellers who did, and hired former Hudson bookseller Pixie Sohn, who is in charge of adult books and teen titles, and former Munchkin’s Bookshelf owner Maryanne Eichorn, who handles children’s and YA. The children’s department was even renamed Munchkin’s Loft. Former owner Margaret Marshall is pitching in by continuing to scan reviews of upcoming books that customers might like and then mailing out personalized notes.
Like all good bookstores, Penguin Bookshop continues to be a work in progress. Six months after the store’s reopening, Fadzen is already looking to expand. She would like to take 1,600 sq. ft. from the basement, which is currently used for offices and storage, to add a rare and collectibles section. Most of the visitors to the store’s Web site, Penguinbookshop.com, Fadzen noted, are looking for out-of-print books. In fact, she sees e-commerce and using the Web site to drive business as the Penguin Bookshop’s next frontier.
Even with the troubled economy, Fadzen expressed no regrets about urging her clients to rescue the Penguin Bookshop. “Especially as things become tighter,” said Fadzen, “it’s going to require people to invest in their communities. People are going to have to step up to the plate.” That’s something the McDanels are already doing.