It’s amazing that they survived the pandemic at all. Yet Amazing Books & Records, the plucky, cluttered little used bookstore on Murray Avenue is not only thriving, they’re also moving in order to expand. The store is headed up the street to a much bigger storefront on Forbes Avenue, which has some of the best foot traffic in the city.
The shop is filled floor to ceiling with a loosely organized selection of every sort of book and record: from science fiction to history, Judaica to philosophy, classic rock to jazz. Soon it will migrate into the space of the former Avalon Exchange space at 5858 Forbes Ave., which is also moving and expanding nearby.
“It’s not me,” explains owner Eric Ackland, refusing to take credit for the bookstore’s turnaround. When everything shut down in March, things looked incredibly bleak. He had to lay off all of his employees.
But then he had an idea: Lit Love Book Box Subscriptions — a customized package of books — and within a week he was able to bring back all his employees.
“You tell us some favorite genres, sub-genres, authors, titles, subjects,” says Ackland, “and we’ll custom pick a box of books.
“We kind of jury-rigged the whole thing,” he adds. “I had a very rudimentary website, and I just launched it by saying, ‘PayPal me the money and email me a list of authors and titles and subjects and we’ll send you something.’”
The book boxes can be ordered weekly, monthly, quarterly or on a one-time basis.
It solved one big problem: Only about 10,000 of his books are listed for sale online, but he has 50,000 in the store.
“So how do I get my books in my stores to the people?” asks Ackland. “They’re not inventoried and they’re not computerized, and most of them don’t sell for very much online. And so this was the solution with these custom book boxes and it really worked, and it’s still working.”
Another powerful driver of sales was a promotion that started last winter and took on a life of its own.
Located in Squirrel Hill since 2014, Amazing Books has become known as the place where you can get a free book or record for every three items that you buy. This has meant that even though overall foot traffic is down 30-40% since the pandemic started, people are buying 30% more books with each purchase, so they get the free book or record, notes Ackland.
Having a bookstore is an asset for any neighborhood. Now Forbes Avenue will now have two, with Classic Lines (named one of five finalists for Bookstore of the Year by Publishers Weekly in 2019) across the street. They sell new and used books. (Amazing Books only sells a handful of new titles, like the new Barack Obama biography and recent reprint of “Dune”).
The expansion will enable many of the books that are in the basement and in storage to appear on the shelves. The new location will have twice as much floor space and three times the storage space. Ackland also estimates that the amount of foot traffic and customers will double or triple at the new location. While the current store is 1,200 square feet with a 600-square-foot basement, the new one is 2,000 square feet with a 1,500-square-foot basement.
“Bookstores are a nexus point; they’re a hub,” explains Ackland. “Coming into a bookstore opens you to serendipity. You smell the books, you touch the books, the textures, the colors … It’s not always supremely well organized, but then you encounter things that you wouldn’t have normally encountered.”
“I’ve tried to hire really friendly, knowledgeable people so if you want good conversations about books and music and other things — and to get suggestions — you can have a real, shared experience. It’s an experience that you don’t get by browsing online.”
Amazing Books & Records also operates a location on Liberty Avenue in the Cultural District. It has struggled, as many Downtown-based employees continue to work from home.
Squirrel Hill, however, is in many ways the perfect place to put a bookstore. “It’s a very literate neighborhood,” says Ackland. “There’s a lot of really bright people both affiliated with the universities, the college students and the professors. And there’s a very strong Jewish community here as well which tends to be fairly literate and interested in books.”
Fiction sells the best, and Ackland is proud of the shop’s history selection. Other sections indicate both careful curation and the whims of whoever happens to be selling used books at any given time.
The market for vinyl records has exploded in recent years, and Amazing Books & Records keeps a stockpile available, displayed prominently. The shop boasts between 8-10,000 records between the two locations.
“We love classic rock, blues, jazz,” says Ackland. “We love post-punk. I barely see it. Post-punk and punk and metal, industrial, and we like avant-garde music in the classical genre or otherwise. All the stuff that’s hard to find that’s cool.”
When selling to Amazing Books & Records, keep this in mind: they’re most excited to see good record collections and “great scholarly works in esoteric fields,” including philosophy. Also, any book from 2018-20, especially science fiction and fantasy.