City Books owner Arlan Hess on classic styles, oversized sweaters, and sustainable fashion | Fashion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

City Books owner Arlan Hess on classic styles, oversized sweaters, and sustainable fashion

click to enlarge Arlan Hess inside City Books in the North Side - CP PHOTO: TERENEH IDIA
CP Photo: Tereneh Idia
Arlan Hess inside City Books in the North Side
Clothes Make: Arlan Hess
Pronouns: She/her
Title: Owner, City Books. 908 Galveton Ave., North Side. citybookspgh.com
Social Media Handles: instagram.com/citybookspgh / facebook.com/citybookspgh / twitter.com/citybookspgh
How would you define your style?
I think I've always looked best in classic styles with clean lines and solid colors. I don't chase a lot of fads. I find what I like and what works for my body, and I stick with it — probably to a fault. Depending on the jobs I've had, I've had to dress up or down depending on the situation. In my 20s, I worked in an office and I enjoyed wearing skirts and suits. When I was teaching through my 30s and 40s, I wore lots of slacks and sweaters, with a tweed or corduroy blazer every once in a while — very light academia. But now at the bookstore, I am often lifting boxes, shelving books, and getting dusty, so comfort is key. T-shirts and jeans and oversized sweaters are my uniform. I enjoy getting dressed up for artsy events and special occasions, but since the pandemic started, I haven't done any of that. I miss it more than I thought I would.

Who are your style inspirations?

I had a 40-year-old's figure when I was a teenager, so my style inspirations were more Katharine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall than Cindy Crawford and Elle MacPherson. I went hard for Lisa Birnbach's Preppy Handbook when I was in junior high, so I wore embroidered pants and carried a Bermuda bag for longer than I care to admit. In high school, I tried a few miniskirts and cropped tops, but that always felt more like a costume than personal style. Those were the early days of Limited Express, remember that? More recently, though, I've tried to find style inspiration in those close to my own age. Right now, I'm keeping my eye on Grece Ghanem, a gray-haired, over-50 microbiologist turned model from Montreal. I think I could pull off her combination of style, detail, and attitude. She also wears more color than I do, which I am trying to emulate.

Do you have a favorite designer?

I don't have a favorite designer because I tend to like individual pieces rather than a designer's whole aesthetic. But lately, when I see something that I like on a celebrity, it turns out to be by Christian Siriano, which I get a kick out of because I watched him on Project Runway years ago.


One of the first things I wanted to be when I was little was a fashion designer because I loved the movie Mahogany. I was too young to understand what the film was really about, but I knew I liked the clothes. Before that, I hadn't realized that clothing was actually designed by a person. I drew pictures of wardrobes for all the women in my family and my school teachers. The first real clothing designer I knew by name was Bob Mackie because of all of Cher's wild dresses.

We only learned how to make pillows in Home Ec, so I taught myself how to sew clothes the summer after high school. I sewed a lot through my 20s. I pulled out my old machine at the beginning of the pandemic to make face masks, but later in the summer, I bought a cheap dress form on eBay and started making my own patterns from watching YouTube videos. I only finished two pieces, but it passed the time.

Tell me about the clothes you’re wearing today?

This is a typical fall outfit for me. My jeans have a bit of stretch in them and they go to my waist, which is what looks best on me because I am so short waisted. I like the dark wash. My shirt is washable silk from Quince. I've been trying to shop more sustainably and I've heard good things about them. I thrifted my cardigan from Goodwill. Since I left teaching, I've tried to shift from an outfit-based wardrobe to a closet-based wardrobe, so I don't buy anything unless it goes with almost everything else I already own — like a capsule wardrobe. That keeps me focused on what I want versus what I really need. It's easier on my budget and cuts down on laundry.

I love the “A” necklace. Do you have any gifts from someone that you wear often or every day?

Yes! My sister gave me the "A" necklace last year. We are big Schitt's Creek fans and Alexis wore one in gold.


Do you have a gift to yourself that you wear often?

I've splurged on eyewear over the last year because my eyes have gotten really bad. I have a huge collection of +2 readers, and although no one pair has been expensive, I have bought a lot of them. Other than that, it has been a couple of years since I bought myself what I would call a gift gift. But I just bought a vintage Mad Men-style winter coat and a pair of vintage Chuck Taylor camouflage high tops on Etsy. They haven't gotten much wear yet, but they will.

One thing I noticed are the small details — the way your sweater is unbuttoned, the cuff of your shirt. I love that!

Thanks! I try to pay attention to details. If I weren't wearing a belt today, I might have buttoned all the way down. And the sleeves of this sweater are a little short, while the sleeves of the blouse are a little long. So form is following function. If the temperature were a bit warmer, I might have worn this as a cardigan instead of a pullover, but I like the pattern as a whole so I didn't want to break it up.

Those are great boots, comfy and stylish. Are they a fall staple?

They are! I've had these for four or five years now. They feel like old friends on my feet — I love pulling them on after a summer off. I can really wear them for three seasons as long as it's not wet out. They are terrible in the rain. But, as long as I am wearing thick socks, I can wear them all winter. I noticed the other day that the soles are beginning to chip away near the toes, so I'm going to get them resoled before they fall apart.

How many pairs of shoes do you have? You do not have to answer that.

I can think of 14-15, but I am probably forgetting some, so let's say 20. I have worn 10.5 narrow shoes most of my life which is a very hard size to find, so my focus has never been shoes. Coats and purses, on the other hand? I rarely get rid of those, so I have accumulated a lot over the years.

You are a big advocate of Shopping Small and Shopping Local, can you talk about the impact that has on businesses and communities?

I think small businesses comprise the backbone of a healthy community because when someone frequents a local business, they talk to their neighbors, they share the wealth of the community, they build an ecosystem that benefits everyone. Local businesses pay taxes that stay in the community in the form of libraries and schools and parks. They sponsor Little League teams. They hold can drives. It's a partnership that builds trust. Oftentimes, the owner is a sole proprietor, like me. When a small business loses a customer, they know it. They feel it, physically. It's like losing a family member. Amazon and Ticketmaster don't care whether or not we buy from them. We're not faces or names, we're data. And they sell that data to make more money. That business model is incompatible with trust.


What do you love about the North Side and being in this Western Avenue corridor? Do the stadiums help business?

I like being on the North Side because although it is in the city, it isn't full of skyscrapers or office buildings over three or four stories. That gives it a small town feel. Northsiders also have a particular sense of independence that, I think, comes from Allegheny City being distinct from Pittsburgh for so long. The stadiums don't help with business in a quantifiable way because people don't usually buy a book on the way too or from a sporting event, but they do walk by the store when they are down here, and that is advertising that I couldn't pay for otherwise.

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