Stimulate your brain, stimulate local bookstores | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Stimulate your brain, stimulate local bookstores

click to enlarge Stimulate your brain, stimulate local bookstores
Photo: Dan Iddings
Classic Lines Books
Two Adirondack chairs sit in front of Classic Lines Books in Squirrel Hill. When the bookshop is open, you’ll find a customer or owner Dan Iddings or even a tired pedestrian relaxing in one of the chairs.

But since the closing of non-essential businesses in Pittsburgh, the seats — and the bookshop — have been empty.

“You've been out there, you know what it’s like,” Iddings says. “It’s like a ghost town.”

Independent book stores in the city have seen a dramatic drop in business since mid-March. Classic Lines, White Whale Bookstore in Bloomfield, City of Asylum Bookstore and City Books in the North Side, Caliban Books in Oakland, and Amazing Books & Records, with locations Downtown and in Squirrel Hill, are trying to cope as best as they can. They take orders online. They reach out to loyal customers via social media platforms. They offer free shipping, curbside pickup, and some even deliver books to customers’ homes.

click to enlarge Stimulate your brain, stimulate local bookstores
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Arlan Hess, owner of City Books, quarantined at home

Arlan Hess, owner of City Books, says she offered online sales with curbside pickup at first, but stopped when Gov. Tom Wolf ordered social distancing. “Because my husband has asthma, and we moved his 85-year-old mother into our house for the duration of the quarantine, I didn’t want to put our household in jeopardy,” Hess says. Instead, she’s brainstorming other options, including launching a new customer loyalty program.

“I'm not going to panic,” says Hess. “We’ll figure out how to get through this.”

But Hess’ guarded optimism is counterbalanced by the reality all indie bookstores face: mounting bills versus depleted sales. And every owner feels heartache about their employees, many of whom are part-time and have other jobs that are also considered non-essential.

While the financial toll of closed bookstores can’t be overstated, the emotional loss of community, of just having a place for book lovers to congregate, is also damaging.

At White Whale Bookstore, Jill Yeomans, co-owner with her husband Adlai, has had to cancel all in-store events, including 28 in April. While they are exploring the possibility of hosting online readings, the most tangible loss is the bookstore itself.

click to enlarge Stimulate your brain, stimulate local bookstores
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
White Whale Bookstore in Bloomfield

“It’s such a supportive thing to come into the bookstore every day and see regulars that you love who want to talk about books,” she says, her voice cracking. “For us personally, we feel the effect of the lack of that. … I’m standing here in the bookstore taking orders and filling online orders, but I’m interacting with very few people. I feel that, and it’s devastating.”

That love of community is also felt by customers. Jane Bernstein, a creative writing professor at Carnegie Mellon University, says the importance of bookstores, and especially booksellers, is often overlooked.

“The people who own and work at independent bookstores don’t see books as products that need to be moved off the shelves,” Bernstein says. “They read books and are eager to share what they love.” And they’ll share anything. At City of Asylum Bookstore, manager Lesley Rains keeps answering phones and taking orders for titles including The Plague by Albert Camus, The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, and Love in the TIme of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

“I’m like, ‘Why?’” Rains says with a laugh about the eerily relevant titles. “But I’m glad to sell anybody anything. … It’s whatever makes people comfortable, that seems to be the theme, however individualized.”

At the Amazing Books & Records location in Squirrel Hill, customers still stop by the store and ask for books, which owner Eric Ackland will find, then take to the door. He’s built a thriving community, especially at the Squirrel Hill location, hosting theme nights around holidays and welcoming book lovers with nowhere else to go. Now that community is in limbo, as is the fate of the store.

“It’s difficult,” Ackland says “But somehow I am trusting we will all come through. We will or we won’t, and that will be OK too.”

The following Pittsburgh bookstores are offering online shopping, deals, or gift certificates for their customers:

• Amazing Books & Records, Downtown and Squirrel Hill:
Caliban Books, Oakland:
City Books, North Side:
City of Asylum Books, North Side:
Classic Lines Bookstore, Squirrel Hill:
Mystery Lovers Bookshop, Oakmont:
Penguin Bookshop, Sewickley:
Riverstone Books, North Hills:
Spark Books, Aspinwall:
White Whale Bookstore, Bloomfield: