929 Liberty Ave., Downtown (412-471-1899
and 2030 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill
(412-436-5535) or amazingbookspgh.com
Both the Downtown and Squirrel Hill locations of Amazing Books boast ample collections of literary fiction, work by local authors and a solid section of history and religious texts. If only the owner had more time to peruse them. "These days I barely read anymore," sighs 42-year-old Eric Ackland, who launched the store in 2013.
But when he finds the time, "I'm a big 19th-century guy — Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, George Eliot." While he digests plenty of contemporary work as well, Ackland says, the authors of the 1800s "knew how to tell a story, but they wanted to do more than entertain. They had a real moral ambition."
The same could be said of Ackland himself. Consistent with his Jewish beliefs, Amazing closes Friday evening and all day Saturday to honor the Sabbath. Closing on one of the week's busiest shopping days "is a challenge," Ackland admits. "But I like the message it sends: that there's something more important than commerce."
For Ackland, after all, books offer another form of refuge from modern life: "I can't be interrupted by an email when I'm reading a book."
And if it weren't for people taking holidays off, he might not be in business at all.
On a wintry day in 2013, "I was [Downtown] dealing with some bureaucracy at the DMV," recalls Ackland, a Philadelphia native who came to Pittsburgh by way of New York City. "I'd finally gotten my paperwork together, and it was closed for Martin Luther King Day." But he spotted a nearby bookstore — then known as Awesome Books — and went in.
Behind the counter was Bob Ziller, an artist who co-owned the store and a Garfield location with his wife, Laura Jean McLaughlin. Ziller and Ackland began talking, and it emerged that Ziller and McLaughlin wanted to get back to pursuing art full time. A month later Ackland, who'd worked in book-retailing before, found himself owning a freshly renamed bookstore.
"I love books, and I love bookstores," Ackland says. "The opportunity just presented itself."
The Garfield location returned to its previous use as McLaughlin's gallery and studio space. But earlier this year, Ackland opened a new store in Squirrel Hill, which was still mourning the 2009 closing of a Barnes & Noble. "Almost every day," Ackland says, "people in Squirrel Hill thank me: 'We needed this for so long.'"
Ackland is mulling a potential third location, and harbors other ambitions as well. He's planning to convert the Squirrel Hill store's basement into space for writing seminars led by local instructors. "It'll be MFA-quality without the MFA," he says.
Such plans, and the demands of stocking two retail locations and keeping up with Internet sales, keep Ackland hopping: He jokes about printing up T-shirts that read "Highly Blessed and Highly Stressed." But if buying a bookstore was a leap of faith, Ackland seems to have landed on his feet.