While brick-and-mortar bookstore chains fight with online shopping giants like Amazon.com for the bookselling market, independent bookstores quietly thrive.
With new storefronts sprouting while the internet’s back is turned, Pittsburgh’s independent bookseller scene seems to be staging a revival. Some bookstores pair themselves with coffeehouses and cafes while others focus purely on the written word. But all have one thing in common — in a world where backlit screens seem to dominate, these storefronts remind readers to keep on reading.
Treasure hunting at Rickert & Beagle Books
While spring cleaning revealed crumpled up receipts and loose change hidden under couch cushions for some, Chris Rickert has uncovered priceless antiques while dusting out the corner of her bookstore.
Rickert found a paper shopping bag full of novels in the backroom of her store, Rickert & Beagle Books, about five years ago. Someone had scrawled “Donate to library,” on the outside, but decided to drop the junk collection off at Rickert’s store instead.
Buried underneath mass-produced paperbacks, Rickert discovered a first printing of American author William S. Burrough’s classic, “Naked Lunch.” The copy was one of 5,000 published in 1959.
The copy of “Naked Lunch” is one curiosity of many that live on the shelves of Rickert & Beagle Books in Dormont. The independently owned store opened six years ago after Rickert took over the space formerly occupied by the closed Eljay’s Used Books.
“A lot of times, it’s one thing in the bottom of a box that someone doesn’t really know about,” Rickert said. “We’ll pull out one piece and take a look at it and realize it’s a rare piece.”
Rickert named the store after herself and her writer friend Peter S. Beagle. Beagle, a Pitt alum who majored in creative writing, is most known for his fantasy novel, “The Last Unicorn.”
Although print is her passion, Rickert admits that “owning a bookstore does not pay the bills.”
Her store’s location, sandwiched between car dealerships on busy West Liberty Avenue, can be a challenge in attracting customers. But she said the Pittsburgh bookstore scene is gaining momentum, as shown by the large number of shops opening in and around the city.
“I’m hopeful that a lot of people come to the bookstore to learn about something new,” she said. “Anything new.”
Breaking the comic norm at the Copacetic Comics Company
In the center of the residential Polish Hill neighborhood, the Copacetic Comics Company sits on the top floor of a hip Wayside school — a coffee shop ground floor and a vinyl record store second floor, with a comic book company on the third.
Bill Boichel, of Forest Hills, opened the shop in 2000, as a way to take comics out of their current context of just a superhero medium.
“I wanted to put comics in the context of books and films and music and art and poetry,” Boichel said. “I wanted to have a store where you could come in for every one of those things and cross-pollinate.”
The walls of Copacetic prove his point. All around the small shop, the dense displays of comic books overflow into piles of literature, jazz CDs and DVDs.
“People can come in for a novel and see the interesting comics coming out,” Boichel said. “And if you’re into just comics, maybe you can branch out a little bit.”
After his college days at Carnegie Mellon University, Boichel just couldn’t keep himself away from comics. He started selling mail order comics in 1977 and eventually opened his own storefront in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania — BEM Publications — in 1985. Boichel had a daughter 10 years later and closed up shop to focus on his family, though he said he was tired of the stand comic bookstore model anyway.
People who were already interested in comics kept coming in and buying the same thing, instead of branching into new comics or independent artists.
“At that point, I stopped selling, for the most part, superhero comics like DC and Marvel,” Boichel said.
Now, focusing instead on independent and local comic book artists, Boichel’s inventory is filled with many titles — such as “Overgrowth and Underbrush,” which Nate Taylor and other Pittsburgh authors published, and Theo Ellsworth’s “Logic Storm” — that the average bookworm wouldn’t recognize. There are a couple classics he keeps in stock, including “Watchmen” and “Akira,” but besides those few, Boichel’s stock displays what he sees as the potential of comics.
Boichel said he prefers this model as it helps foster the independent press “ecosystem we’re all a part of,” pointing to examples such as the Pittsburgh Zine Fair, Autumn House Press and Braddock Avenue Books. According to Boichel, these opportunities for independent artists make it an exciting time for the comic book scene, especially for someone like him who’s long been watching the scene for new and interesting material.
“I was always doing comics,” Boichel said. “I just had the bug.”
Big love, small space at Nine Stories
It’s the romance you’ve never heard of.
With a shared passion for local bands, John Shortino and Allison Mosher met at a concert at Toast, a coffeeshop in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, in 2002. Instead of exchanging phone numbers, the 16-year-olds began exchanging books.
“[We] exchanged a lot of Vonnegut,” Shortino, now 31, said in an email. “She lent me her dad’s copy of ‘Welcome to the Monkey House,’ and I lent her my copy of ‘Cat’s Cradle.’”
The couple combined their book collections in 2010, and found they had a number of duplicates. Those copies made it through many moves, including one from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh two years later. Today, the 31-year-olds live in Stanton Heights.
As avid readers who wanted to build on their experience working in museums, libraries and bookstores, Mosher and Shortino aspired to have their own independent location. They started selling books at temporary venues such as the Garfield Night Market and Stephen Foster Community Center. With their revenue, they built up their stock of books, buying from yard, garage and library sales.
The two began hunting for a place to set up shop, zeroing in on a space next to Butler Street’s Caffe D’Amore. Mosher and Shortino celebrated Nine Stories’ grand opening in October, in a 480 square-foot shop. As “rabid Salinger readers,” Shortino said they christened the store after the American author’s 1953 short story collection. Though it’s smaller than your average studio apartment, the store fits about 3,000 titles.
“We don’t have a ton of room but we try to have a lot [of books] for the size shop we are,” Shortino said. “[The] idea of specialization and curation, I think, is how independent bookstores are carving out that space for themselves.”
No money, no problems at The Big Idea Bookstore
Ask to speak to the owner at The Big Idea Book Store and you will hear a collective “that’s me” from every employee working that day.
The Big Idea Book Store began in 2001 as a non-profit, volunteer-run store primarily stocking progressive texts through an anarchist business model. At that time, it had no storefront and focused mostly on tabling at music shows. Today, it operates out of the Bloomfield storefront as a democratic cooperative — one in which there is no sole owner, no hierarchy and no pay.
Though volunteers at the shop don’t make a salary, they do pool all their tips and divide them based on how many hours they worked that week. Any money the collective makes through book sales goes toward paying the store’s rent.
While patrons wandered through the aisles in January, Kyle Verma, of Greenfield, sat behind the counter of The Big Idea Bookstore and fiddled with a Rubik’s cube. Verma, a member of the 20-person collective, found the gig online a year and a half ago.
“I was just looking for part-time work at a bookstore and I found this place,” Verma, 27, said. “It’s all volunteer, and I figured it would be faster getting a volunteer job than a part-time job.”
As Verma walked around the store, pointing out the different sections of books along the wall — anti-work and primitivism, anarchism, underworld history, queer studies — he said the store is committed to “getting out all of the hate” by educating people about systems other than capitalism.
“Alternatives can work,” Verma said. “We don’t have to have the system we have. We can have a store that runs successfully with no one in charge that is not intending to make money.”
And for the first time in 16 years, The Big Idea Bookstore can point to its data and show that this is true. The bookshop recorded its first year of profits in 2016, which it is donating to multiple causes around the city. Verma said that after some brainstorming, the group plans to donate to the Pittsburghers arrested at the presidential inauguration as well as the two protesters arrested in Towers Lobby in November.
“We haven’t had to think about what to do with profits until now,” Verma said.
There’s also a row of donation jars sitting in front of the cash register — all for different causes, including the arrested Pittsburghers — so book-shoppers can decide where they’d like to channel their money.
Further down the counter, the store sells patches, posters and onesies that read “exhausted by capitalism.” Verma pointed to the mural on the wall behind it all, which reads, in Spanish, “lee un piche libro.”
“I think it means ‘Pick up a f***ing book,’” Verma said.
Caliban Book Shop
Tucked between Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, a veteran of the Pittsburgh book scene sits quietly, its shelves so full that the owner has to pile books in stacks between the aisles.
John Schulman, of Squirrel Hill, opened Caliban Book Shop with his now-wife, Emily Hetzl, in 1990. Schulman said the bookstore’s structure is simple.
“I opened it as a used and rare bookstore,” Schulman said. “And that’s what it still is.”
When he opened the shop, Schulman had just finished his Master’s degree in education at Pitt, but couldn’t figure out what he wanted to do. Though he considered teaching, Schulman kept coming back to the idea of a bookshop. As a teenager, he’d worked at Tucker’s Book Store on Murray Avenue, and in college, he sold books at shows to pay his rent.
“I didn’t want to be a teacher, I just wanted to open a bookshop,” Schulman said.
Since then, Caliban has become a symbol of successful independent book shops in Pittsburgh. Through the early 2000s, though Schulman’s continually rotating inventory kept his business alive, few other bookstores managed to keep their doors open. Schulman attributed this to the internet and to larger, chain bookstores — but that’s changing, he said.
“There seems to be a new generation of indie bookstores opening up, so I only see positives going forward,” Schulman said, adding that independent bookstore owners in the city have formed a network. “We’re all close and we all share advice and information. We’re supportive of each other.”
Another important element of the Pittsburgh book scene, according to Schulman, is the diversity of products each store offers. At Caliban, the inventory offers everything from cookbooks to medical texts to novels in foreign languages.
In the current political climate, Schulman said a lot of people are scared, but each bookshop in Pittsburgh offer resources to help remedy those fears. Some books offer forms of a distraction, while others offer information.
“People can read to escape the nightmare or learn more about it,” Schulman said.
City of Asylum Books
Pittsburgh’s newest bookstore is celebrating its one-month anniversary on Valentine’s Day.
City of Asylum, a nonprofit based in North Side, provides a space for marginalized writers who have been exiled from their home countries. And now, it’s unrolled a literary storefront — City of Asylum books — on Jan. 14 as a stage for some of those writers to display their works.
The 1,200-square-foot bookstore shares its space with the wine-and-cheese restaurant Casellula @ Alphabet City, which opened Jan. 28. A performance space bridges the two vendors, complete with a stage and seating.
The bookstore specializes in translated works, working with groups like the New Directions Publishing Company, to bring a world of literature to Pittsburgh readers. Lesley Rains, the store manager, started working for City of Asylum in June after she sold her other store, the East End Book Exchange, in Bloomfield.
“Our speciality is what sets us apart from other bookstores in the city and elsewhere,” Rains, 36, from Lawrenceville, said in an email.
The shelves of the store are stacked with titles from award-winning authors, as well as history, travel, philosophy and poetry books. There’s a separate section for used books and a wide selection of international writers from Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. The store also boasts a wealth of literary locals, including Terrance Hayes’ poems and August Wilson’s plays along with new novels like Michael Chabon’s “Moonglow.”
In addition to selling books, Alphabet City hosts free weekly events and readings on cross-cultural exchange. American authors and international writers have walked through the venue’s doors — Feb. 9 at 8 p.m., the venue will host Chinese/British author Peter Ho Davies.
“All of our events here are really about opening up conversations about different communities,” Rains said.
Rains is optimistic about building community in Pittsburgh and about the city’s independent bookstore scene. She said the store highlights a diversity of stories, characters and authors, which is particularly important now, while the nation is divided by politics. With the local universities and large population, the city is a viable place to open a store like City of Asylum Books.
“We’re committed to pushing back against the idea that people who come to the U.S. are some kind of ‘other,’” Rains said. “We’re here and we’re open and we’re just wanting to do something that’s distinctive and different from the other bookstores in town.”