Pittsburgh, a city known for its three rivers, has been gaining recognition for its growing number of independent bookstores. Though the 2008 recession spelled the end for many of the area’s national and regional chain stores, several bookselling newcomers have since opened and a few longtime stores have bounced back, including the Penguin Bookshop in suburban Sewickley, which is celebrating its 90th year.
The resurgence is part of Pittsburgh’s decades-long renaissance, which has seen the city rise from the devastating loss of steel production in the 1970s and ’80s to reinvent itself as a vibrant hub for education, medicine, technology, and culture. The literary scene has blossomed, as well, by building on a rich history of writing programs at the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and other schools. “It’s become more and more a place that publishers and authors want to come and visit,” says Lesley Rains, a pioneering force in Pittsburgh’s bookselling revitalization and manager of City of Asylum Bookstore on the city’s North Side.
The New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association has taken note and has held several meetings for booksellers in the region. “While the area lost a few valuable bookstores over the last 20 years, there is a nice resurgence,” says NAIBA executive director Eileen Dengler. “We want to build a community of booksellers in Pittsburgh.”
The New Wave of Booksellers
Rains, who moved back to her hometown in 2010, is one of the booksellers spearheading this new wave. When she realized that she could not reliably buy a book by Jane Austen in Pittsburgh, she decided to do something about it. “Surely,” she recalls thinking, “there’s a demand for not just a bookstore but a community.” She began a pop-up used bookstore, named the East End Book Exchange, but soon moved to a stall in the Pittsburgh Public Market (in the city’s Strip District). By 2012, she found a storefront for EEBX in the neighborhood of Bloomfield, Pittsburgh’s Little Italy. “The books that we carried on our shelves and the readings that we held multiple times a week, every week, became the heart of what we did,” Rains says.
A few years later, Rains was “exhausted” and ready to shift gears. She found like-minded successors in Jill and Adlai Yeomans. The couple met while working at Hachette in New York City in 2009 and relocated to Pittsburgh in 2012. They relaunched the EEBX space as White Whale Bookstore in October 2016. Today, the store focuses more on new than used titles. The increased children’s and YA offerings reflect Jill’s passion and her experience as a children’s book author (the Unnaturals series, writing as Devon Hughes) and editor. “We go out of our way to create an environment of inclusivity,” Adlai says. “You’re also going to get a focus on smaller presses and independent publishers, which is one of the things that sets us apart.”
Rains missed bookselling and took a job with City of Asylum Bookstore, which opened in 2017. The store is located inside the cultural center/event space known as Alphabet City, which also houses a restaurant. The bookstore operates as an arm of the grassroots nonprofit City of Asylum, which provides sanctuary for writers who have been exiled from their home countries and champions freedom of expression. Children’s buyer Jennifer Kraar describes the store’s atmosphere as “inviting and festive.” Her mission is to spotlight diverse children’s books and social justice works, as well as titles in translation.
Another relatively new store, the five-year-old Classic Lines Bookstore in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, has rapidly made a name for itself. It was one of five finalists for PW’s 2019 Bookstore of the Year. The store was nominated for supporting neighbors who were affected by the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue last fall.
Changing Things Up
Mystery Lovers Bookshop, in the borough of Oakmont, was founded in 1990 by Mary Alice Gorman and Richard Goldman. Its focus on the mystery/thriller genre led the store to win a Raven Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 2010. After a change in ownership in 2012, Mystery Lovers began stocking more children’s, YA, and local interest titles. When Tara Goldberg-DeLeo and Kristy Bodnar, both mothers of young children, bought the store in August 2018, they further expanded the children’s section to serve the community’s burgeoning families.
Not far from the site of a former Borders location, Barbara Jeremiah opened Riverstone Books in October 2017, as part of the new McCandless Crossing mixed-use development. The 2,300-sq.-ft. store has a cozy kids’ section with a carpeted area for storytimes and a small pillow-filled reading nook, as well as a Hogwarts-inspired mural. At 300 sq. ft., the Tiny Bookstore, which caters to the same community, lives up to its name. Located in the Pines Shops at Pines Plaza, a strip mall in the North Hills, the store had its official grand opening in January.
Pittsburgh has had a handful of children’s-only stores over the years, including the renowned Pinocchio Bookstore, run by Marilyn Hollinshead from 1985 to 2002. And children’s specialty stores are starting to return, with Adriene Rister’s opening of Spark Books in the tiny borough of Aspinwall last October. The mother of two boys, Rister has been very careful about selecting the inventory for her small store, just under 500 sq. ft. “My intention is to be really thoughtful and deliberate about what’s here,” she says, noting that being inclusive is part of her mission. “I want to make sure that we’re seeing the people of our community and our world in the books.”