The indie bookshop with locations on Penn Avenue in Garfield and on Liberty, Downtown, is under new ownership and preparing to downsize to one location.
Three years after launching the Garfield store, artists Laura Jean McLaughlin and Bob Ziller have sold Awesome Books to Eric Ackland, a recent transplant here. The Garfield location will close March 23 and Ackland, a freelance writer with a background in book sales, will take over the Downtown venue — renamed Amazing Books — starting April 3.
The Downtown location was launched in late 2011 as part of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership's Pop-Up Project to enliven vacant storefronts.
The sale was finalized yesterday. Ziller says that while business hasn’t been bad, he and McLaughlin wanted to go back to being full-time artists.
The Garfield location, in fact, is distinguished by its funky façade, featuring McLaughlin’s ceramic work. The store, a fixture on Penn Avenue’s monthly Unblurred gallery crawls, will revert to being her studio.
Ackland, 41, bought Awesome Books’ stock of about 20,000 new and used titles, says Ziller. (Ziller launched Awesome with a trove of volumes from the South Side’s old Riverrun bookstore, but he says only a couple thousand of that original stock remains.) Ackland also assumed the store’s Downtown lease.
Ackland is a Philadelphia native whose bookstore experience included a stint at Last Word bookstore, near the University of Pennsylvania. He more recently lived in New York City, and moved here in May to join his fiance.
He first visited Awesome Books’ Downtown location only a month ago. Ziller was at the counter, and Ackland told him he’d always wanted to own a bookstore.
Ziller — who's heard that line a lot — says he replied, “Want to buy this one?”
Ackland later told his fiance of the exchange. “She said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s your dream, isn’t it?’” With her encouragement, he followed through.
Ackland is aware these are tough times for bricks-and-mortar bookstores. But he was inspired by reading Andrew Laties’ Rebel Bookseller, which makes a case for bookstores integrated into a community.
“A bookstore is a cultural anchor,” he says.
And he’s reviewed Awesome’s numbers. “It’s a viable business,” says Ackland. “[Ziller] did good business last year.”
Ziller agrees. “If all I wanted to do was be a bookseller, it would be totally fine” running the stores, says Ziller.
But, Ziller says of he and McLaughlin, “It just became a lot more time-consuming than we ever would have wanted.”
Ackland, an Orthodox Jew, says he won't keep Friday- or Saturday-evening hours for most of the year (except in summer, when sunsets are later.) Those times, of course, correspond to high foot traffic Downtown, especially during the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s quarterly Gallery Crawls. But Ackland says he’s confident in his business plan.
“I know what’s good and what sells. Those are not always synonymous,” quips Ackland. “I think there’s a future in print books.”