When I walk into Point Breeze’s Bottom Feeder Books, I’m welcomed by owner Ryan McLennan’s new dog, Sky. She stands up rather politely on her hind legs, gingerly placing her paws on the counter. “She wants to greet the customers,” McLennan says.
After a minute of basking in my attention, she lays back down on a bed on the floor and heads right to sleep: a perfect bookstore dog.
She suits the atmosphere of the store, which is precise and well-curated without losing the hand-touch sensibility that makes it feel alive. It’s remarkably open and organized, with minimalist white walls and floating shelves set against dark wood and brick. A poster for Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud — the Danish filmmaker’s final film about love, both miraculous and immiserating — hangs by the register. “I did everything,” McLennan tells me. “I built all the shelves, all the counters.”
Bottom Feeder Books opened its doors around six months ago at the end of July. Before then, McLennan lived and worked all over the country, including at Chop Suey Books, a used bookstore in Richmond, Va. once profiled by The New York Times for its wide-ranging selection. “I just learned so much more there,” he says of the experience. “You get a lot of students coming in and seeing things they’re reading, one thing leads to another … You read interviews with all these painters and they talk about writers, you read interviews with these filmmakers and they talk about painters and poets,” he says.
After leaving Richmond, he moved to Brooklyn to paint, showing in galleries in the city. Eventually, he took a job at Stumptown Coffee — one that brought him to Portland, Ore., which he left in 2020 for Pittsburgh. He knew at once when he got here that he wanted to open a bookstore, but it took a while. “I had thousands of books already, but I kept buying, and saving money, and trying to find the right spot.”
McLennan sources Bottom Feeder’s stock from all over: trips to Ohio, Maryland, and West Virginia, library sales, and even a few unnamed spots in Pittsburgh. “Since I’ve been open, I’ll make house calls to go look at stuff if they know what I’m looking for or interested in.”
He’s most interested in finding early original printings, with a heavy emphasis on literature (especially modernist texts, I notice), art, and film.
“What I feel confident I know about kind of fizzles out in the ‘80s. But I find things all the time.” He emphasizes affordability as an important metric, too. “I price things based on what I could find them being sold online for, but I’m trying to go below that. I’m always looking for things that are cheap ... There are a lot of things on the shelves that are $5, because I don’t want people to feel like they can’t buy something.”
“There’s a lot of stuff that’s going to be very particular for the right person,” McLennan remarks.
He has a point. I think about the list of the books I’ve picked up at Bottom Feeder over the past few months, something that — like perusing someone’s playlist – reveals more about me than about the books themselves: P. Adams Sitney’s avant-garde film Bible Visionary Film, an art book focusing on pioneering feminist artist Carolee Schneeman, a beat-up old copy of an early Henry James novel I’d never even heard of. Later, I’m thrilled when he pulls out a gorgeous old coffee table book about the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini, which he tells me is “one of my favorite books in here … I’ve never seen another one before.”
McLennan has also started branching out into hosting events with local independent publishers, such as Todd Sanders of Air and Nothingness Press and Emma Honcharski of local food publication Dinner Bell Magazine. “I want to do more events, because it does bring people into the store.”
McLennan shows me a small room in the back under construction. “I’m still working on the ceiling, I need to paint it … but this is essentially a gallery space.” He’s hoping to host art shows, in addition to expanding the shop’s events lineup with more signings and readings, or maybe even film screenings.
Towards the end of our conversation, I mention that I’ve been haunted by the copy of filmmaker Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales that’s been on display for the past few months. McLennan lights up immediately, telling me that he can’t believe no one’s bought it yet. “It’s super hard to find,” he says, and tapping the counter for emphasis continues, “and I have it priced cheaper than anywhere I’ve ever seen it!”
Reader, I bought the book on my way out. After all, if the books at Bottom Feeder are just lying in wait for the right person to find them, why delay the inevitable once they’ve been found?
Bottom Feeder Books. 415 Gettysburg St., Point Breeze. bottomfeederbooks.com