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The Second Wave of Pittsburgh Bookstores

You may know Laura Jean McLaughlin and Bob Ziller by their visual art. Ceramicist McLaughlin used to run the Clay Penn; her fanciful figures show up in mosaics, parks, and murals all over town. Painter Ziller often works in "creative construction" and is responsible for the Warhol flowers gracing boarded-up windows around Pittsburgh, aka the Pittsburgh Beautification Project.

The two artists recently had a bookstore business "fall out of the sky" and into their laps when Ziller's former employer, Riverrun Books (once located next to City Books on East Carson Street), offered them 10,000 "awesome" second-hand books. The resulting Awesome Books opened its doors at 5111 Penn Avenue during the February 2010 Unblurred events, to the excitement of about 50 customers who blasted through a blizzard and renovations in progress.

It shouldn't come as a shock that the store, situated between the thriving poetry scenes at ModernFormations and the Shadow Lounge, is moving a hefty number of poetry titles--but it did surprise the owners. "Poetry is probably our biggest seller," claims McLaughlin. "Bukowski, Neruda, Whitman, Robert Frost, Billy Collins," Ziller rattles off some of the top-selling authors.

Ziller, a poet himself, plans to add new books to his stock of used titles, and poetry may be at the top of that list. The profusion of out-of-town book shoppers has been another pleasant surprise; performance space Garfield Artworks provides a steady flow of buying customers, especially traveling band members seeking reads for the road. Lucky for Awesome Books, another busy music venue, The Mr. Roboto Project, is in the process of finalizing a deal to move in across the street.

Caliban Books owner John Schulman was quick to welcome Awesome to town by dropping off a dozen boxes of books. Caliban Manager Kris Collins explains the rationale: "The more bookstores, the better," says Caliban manager Kris Collins. For us, it means more people coming to book-shop in a centralized area, and more places for us to send customers if we don't have the book they're looking for."

The owners of Awesome Books feel the same way. When they heard that the Bloomfield bookstore, Big Idea, might be buying the Thomas Merton Center building at nearby 5129 Penn Ave., they were nothing but excited. "Then we'd become a destination stop for book lovers," McLaughlin says. The sale didn't come to pass; for now, The Big Idea will stay put on Millvale Avenue.

The economic climate has bookstores all over town tweaking their business models--which means mixed news for urban residents. Barnes & Noble shuttered their walkable Squirrel Hill location at the close of 2009, opting instead for a super-sized suburban spot that launched in May at Settlers Ridge. A bookseller on the South Side went the other direction: The same snowy month that Awesome Books opened, Joseph-Beth downsized from a two-level behemoth on Carson Avenue in South Side Works, to a much more compact space facing the Town Square of that complex. But with a location more suited to pedestrians, the store's foot traffic, book browsing, and event attendance have only increased. "The old location was a place that people drove by," points out General Manager Chris Rickert.

A Longtime Bookseller Expands
After years of running a North Squirrel Hill store the size of a walk-in closet, Bill Boichel moved his Copacetic Comics Company across town in late May (saving the closet scale for his November 2009 enterprise, the Copacetic annex at the downtown Toonseum). His new Polish Hill location is three times the size, and offers more display space, sunlight, and an expansive hilltop view.

The wiry and energetic Boichel calls himself an "evangelist of comics," but it's a broader swath of culture he's selling. As fiction enthusiast and Lawrenceville artist, Susan Constance, points out, "'comicbook store' is almost a misnomer." Indeed, in his excitement to demonstrate that comics and graphic novels "are an art form like any other," Boichel stocks a highly-curated array of art books, children's books, fiction and non, CDs, DVDs, and hip periodicals like McSweeney's and The Ganzfeld.

Poet Scott Silsbe, who is browsing the CDs on Copacetic's shelf, joins the conversation, stating, "More bookstores are better for Pittsburgh's creative communityŚit means more places to run into our fellow writers." Boichel agrees that indie culture centers like book and record stores are crucial for "nurturing the next generation of local talent," recalling the many budding comic artists who met each other in his BEM store in Wilkinsburg back in the 1980s and '90s. Silsbe, who is also warehouse manager at Caliban, notes, "A new place like Awesome Books may be filling in a nicheŚwhat Caliban is to the university-based writers, Awesome may become for the 'street poets' of Pittsburgh."

Helping Turn the Neighborhood

When Awesome's McLaughlin bought 5111 Penn seven years ago, there was open gun and drug dealing on the street. But several years into initiatives like Unblurred, the Avenue sees a much different tradeŚlike folks who want to follow a Spak Bros. slice with some book browsing. "A lot of people walk into the store eating pizza," says Ziller. Meanwhile, the owners of Dish have bought the building next door, and there are more Penn restaurants in the works, according to the Friendship Development Associates.

Over in Polish Hill, Copacetic's arrival is one of four new ventures reversing a 30-year trend of decline in neighborhood retail. Appreciative residents have already noted its impact from front porches, as a steady stream of pedestrians pass by, the bookstore's conspicuous green bags in hand.

Editor's Note: And don't forget the much-loved Mystery Lovers Bookshop outside the city in Oakmont. Since this article was published we have heard from many loyal fans about this bookstore that has been wowing readers since 1990.

Author Karen Lillis worked at the legendary St Mark's Bookshop in New York City for eight years. She is a novelist, freelance writer, and 2009 MLIS graduate of the School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. Her most recent novel is "The Second Elizabeth," out on Pittsburgh's own Six Gallery Press.

In the pictures: (top and bottom) Laura Jean McLaughlin and Bob Ziller; (below) Bill Boichel

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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