Despite the obstacles posed by a pandemic that has lingered for more than a third of White Whale Bookstore’s six-year existence, by adhering to a motto of “conversation, community, culture” it has grown to meet the needs of Pittsburgh’s readers and writers—not to mention the two co-owners themselves.
“The first few years we lived here, there really weren’t any bookstores in Pittsburgh selling new books—they were selling only used books,” noted Jill Yeomans, who owns White Whale with her husband, Adlai Yeomans. The couple, who met in 2009 while working as editors at Hachette Book Group (he at Center Street Books, she at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), moved to the Steel City in 2012 because they “really wanted to get out of New York City” and had enjoyed their previous visits to see a friend of Adlai’s who lived in Pittsburgh.
The Yeomans became bookstore owners in 2016 when they acquired the used bookstore East End Book Exchange from Lesley Rains. The couple immediately overhauled the store’s interior design and inventory and transformed it into White Whale. “We’d always hoped to eventually open a bookstore,” Jill said. “Having one that already had all the bookcases and was established—it was much easier to sell the idea to ourselves, as someone else was already doing it.”
The transition from being publishing professionals to being booksellers was relatively easy, Adlai recalled. “Having been in that publishing environment really informed us on what it took to run a bookstore,” he said. “And understanding the relationship between publisher and a new indie bookstore—we had a leg up on what that’s about.”
As for the bookstore’s name, an homage to Moby-Dick: “It brands well, looks good, and sounds good,” Adlai said, adding that “shockingly” there weren’t any other indies in the U.S. with names that referenced Herman Melville’s novel.
“It’s easily recognizable as a literary reference,” Jill pointed out.
Though White Whale is a general bookstore that sells both adult and children’s books, its largest section is—unsurprisingly, given its name—literary fiction. “It’s our biggest driver,” Jill remarked, noting that works in translations also sell well, as do graphic books.
Several indies selling new books have opened in Pittsburgh since 2016, but Adlai said two categories in particular set White Whale apart: it carries a large selection of LGBTQ titles, as well as books dedicated to local authors and presses. “We do it in a really big way,” Adlai said. “We carry a lot of titles from West Virginia University Press and Westview Press. Our local section celebrates all the writers in town, too. It’s a vibrant writing community here, so we’re trying to spotlight that.”
Jill said, “We didn’t know this before we moved here, but Pittsburgh has a robust and active poetry scene. People come from other cities to read poetry here.” White Whale has supported local writers by “hosting many series that have started to build up and gain traction over time.” It also pairs in-store events featuring local writers with one another or with touring authors, “to take advantage of both customer bases and introduce people to authors they might not have known through an author they’re already passionate about.”
White Whale had a vibrant programming schedule pre-Covid and managed to hold about 300 virtual author events during the first two years of the pandemic. Virtual events, Adlai pointed out, “are a great tool for working with the indie presses and the small presses that don’t have the resources to tour authors through Pittsburgh. It’s a great way to connect with those writers and those publishers.” Moving forward, White Whale plans to offer a mix of virtual and in-person events, including off-site events in partnership with the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures reading series and with the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, as well as other local literary organizations.
White Whale is further enticing customers into participating in “conversation, community, culture” through its addition earlier this year of a 1,500-square-foot café serving coffee, tea, and local beer, as well as baked goods. “You can order a cortado, get a book, and hang out,” Adlai said. “It’s nice to come in and to see people hanging out, reading or talking with their friends. We’ve always tried to be the third place, the place where people spend their time, and now, it is.”
Jill added, “We’ve tried to prioritize community in our store through our events, the books we stock, and the feel of the store when you’re in it. When we launched the café, it felt like it had finally come together; it felt like the store that we had always envisioned.”