You’re excused for believing independent bookstores were killed off in the late ’90s by big box retailers and the behemoth known as Amazon. Pittsburgh is known as a literary city and our neighborhoods are alive with thriving, local booksellers. Each of these stores has their own flavor, culture and specialties and is as varied as the covers they stock.
Stacked from floor to ceiling, Amazing Books displays titles on shelves and tables with recently acquired collections in boxes in front of the register waiting to be displayed or gone through. This is a place where you can find a classic by Ernest Hemingway or a six-volume collection of the Talmud in Hebrew. With two locations, downtown and Squirrel Hill, owner Eric Ackland features over 30,000 titles, about 99% of which are gently used. Amazing Books is an example of what makes the current crop of independent bookstores successful—they’re responsive to customers’ needs and requests and don’t over extend themselves with stock that doesn’t move. In October, Ackland added albums downtown which now make up 25-40% of its business, he says. Both locations carry a handful of new titles and offerings from local authors as well. Ackland has big plans for Amazing Books, including a writer’s school downstairs at the Squirrel Hill location, which is currently celebrating its first anniversary.
Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley is the oldest independent bookstore in the city. According to owner Susan Hans O’Connor, the store opened in 1929 and while they are a New York Times reporting store, she points out they are defined as “a neighborhood bookstore supported by the community for over 85 years.”
Hans O’Connor explains that they carry a carefully curated collection of fiction and non-fiction for all ages, as well as journals, newspapers and magazines. Like most of the stores, Penguin features author events and recently started the Penguin Bookshop Writers Series, presenting authors and publishers discussing the art and business of writing.
Located in Oakland, Caliban Book Shop features quality used and rare books, and feels like the type of bookstore you’d find college professors browsing during lunch, searching for an obscure Renaissance book or Beat tome. Desolation Row, located in the front corner of the store, specializes in indie, folk, jazz, Americana and blues LPs and CDs. The store, which also carries books and ‘zines by local authors, is unique in Pittsburgh and has been a much-loved presence on S. Craig St. for decades.
Ask most fans of the local literary scene where to hear an author reading on any given night and the answer will likely be East End Book Exchange in Bloomfield. For good reason. Owner Lesley Rains says “we do about 50 events a year, most weeks we have at least one event, sometimes two, occasionally we’ve done three.” Although the inventory is about 95% used, the store carries prominent new releases and local authors with an emphasis on the humanities—contemporary and classic literature, poetry, history, travel and more. East End Book Exchange highlights just how the indie scene has developed in the city: It started as a pop-up store, grew with its customers and now has a permanent location and stocks about 8,000 titles.
Tucked into the top floor of a three-story building in Polish Hill that houses a coffee shop and record store, Copacetic Comics specializes in comics and graphic novels by major and very small presses and self-publishers. Owner Bill Boichel speaks with pride of the hundreds of titles you can only find in a half dozen shops throughout North America. “There’s us, one in Chicago, one in Portland, one in San Francisco, one in Baltimore and one in Toronto,” he says. People have often mistaken Copacetic for a used bookstore but they are a full service new bookstore whose stock is tailored to their customer base. Boichel also carries many local authors and features events at the store with talented artists such as Ed Piskor.
Dormont boasts two indie bookstores. Beyond Bedtime Books is a charming new and used adults and children’s bookstore which has been on Potomac Avenue for 30 years. Customers call it adorable. Don’t miss the the cozy reading corner in the rear and beyond that, the children’s room filled with books, especially vintage children’s book which is a specialty. Owner Jamie Grassman also stocks local author books. This is a gem on a great walkable street.