White Whale Bookstore is just a little fish swimming in a big pond that includes leviathans like Amazon.
The beloved Bloomfield bookseller isn’t content with being a guppy and is expanding to take over the adjacent storefront at its location at 4754 Liberty Ave. This will give the shop a total of about 3,500 square feet of space.
The 5-year-old bookstore has been planning to expand for at least two years, but like a good story, there were some unexpected plot twists along the way.
“We had thought that we were outgrowing our current space, like leveling off in terms of capacity — being able to fit enough books in to increase our profits,” says Jill Yeomans, who owns the store with her husband Adlai.
When the pandemic happened, expansion plans were put on hold and it was all about survival for a while.
Then, last summer, the owners say they were approached by McCaffery, which was looking for a bookstore as part of its redevelopment of the massive Terminal building in the Strip District. The real estate developer eventually chose Posman Books, a chain from New York City that also includes an ice cream shop.
“And, of course, that sort of imploded,” says Yeomans. “But we put in all of the work for that idea — we’d already done all upfront work in terms of, you know, budgeting out a loan, and figuring out what would work in terms of style and expanding our book selection.
“And then, very luckily, right after that Strip Terminal fell through, our current landlord approached us about expanding into the space next door. He had been planning to put a taproom in for his business, and after putting a lot of work in there just decided it wasn’t the right time for him. And so, before putting it on the open market, he gave us first dibs on it.”
It’s a beautiful storefront in a 19th-century commercial building along one of Pittsburgh’s most popular pedestrian thoroughfares.
Soon, there will be room for more of everything. White Whale plans on expanding its popular poetry section to make room for (books of) plays, and “genre fiction” like fantasy, romance and science fiction.
“We’ve had a couple of shelves dedicated to a Pittsburgh focus before now,” says Yeomans. “And now there will be a whole case, if not two cases, that are just books about Pittsburgh or by Pittsburgh writers.”
You would think that the ease and selection of Amazon combined with the pandemic would have killed off the small, local bookstore by now, but you’d be wrong.
“We’ve actually seen a ton of growth in the last five years,” says Yeomans. “You know, when everyone was telling us Amazon is going to be the death of small bookstores, we instead, have seen many more opening and the ones that are open doing pretty well. So I’m not scared of Amazon.”
The key, notes Yeomans, is that you’re not getting an algorithm to pick out books for you — you’re getting a person.
“It’s about being able to actually talk with people and get a sense for what they might like, and maybe introduce them to stuff that an algorithm wouldn’t suggest for them,” says Yeomans. “We are trying to do something personal and small and familiar and intimate, and I don’t think Amazon can do that.”
Yeomans and her husband met in the publishing world in New York City. His best friend was from Pittsburgh, so they visited the city a lot and fell in love with it. When they were looking to get out of “the big, big city,” Pittsburgh beckoned.
They weren’t looking to start a bookstore, but it was something the city was lacking at the time (2010).
“When we moved here, there wasn’t a single bookstore selling only new books,” says Yeomans. “I think Barnes & Noble (school bookstore) at Duquesne was it. There were a couple that popped up shortly after — in fact, Classic Lines ended up opening 18 months before we did. There just weren’t a lot, and we were coming from New York City, where there are bookstores in almost every neighborhood.”
When Lesley Rains put East End Book Exchange (which was primarily used books) up for sale, the Yeomans decided to jump in.
The newly-expanded store will also have more room for events, which are a major part of the literary community that White Whale has helped foster in the past few years.
“We’ve done some major, major authors,” says Yeomans. “We hosted Celeste Ng, musician Ben Folds (the musician), Joe Biden (pre-presidency), Jesmyn Ward. And we’ve been a partner for the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures series for the last three years, so that’s been really awesome.”
“As well as just doing some local author visits, or book launches. We really feel like we made our name events-wise with doing major local author pushes. So recently, even during the pandemic, we’ve been able to do virtual launches with Deesha Philyaw (“The Secret Lives of Church Ladies”), and Brian Broome (“Punch Me Up to the Gods”). We just did one with Rachel Lippincott. Last year our last big in-person event was with Claire Beams. So, these are all local authors but are getting major national attention and winning awards, and it feels really good to kind of be their home.”