There are all kinds of bookstores out there — from chaotic treasure hunts piled to the ceiling with used books galore, to Barnes & Noble-like simulacra, selling a few bestsellers among the toys and knickknacks.
Then there’s Bottom Feeder Books, which has just opened in Point Breeze. This is a bookstore for people who love bookstores. Since I’m one of those people, I even had a weird, fleeting thought upon entering — is this a trap?
I mean, every book on the shelves is something I want … and they’re playing one of my favorite albums ever (Charles Mingus’ 1964 jazz masterpiece “Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus”) as I walk in. Was this all an elaborate setup? Is that copy of “Film as a Subversive Art” the last book I ever touch? Now I’m trying to remember if I said anything nasty about Putin on Twitter …
Nope, everything’s cool. Owner Ryan McLennan is disarming in a most modest and easygoing way. He’s a well-rounded guy, with a career as a painter (exhibiting in New York and LA), 10 years in the coffee business, as well as decades in the book trade. After stints in Brooklyn and Portland, he and his girlfriend made a pandemic-era move to Pittsburgh to be closer to family. So this is where he decided to put Bottom Feeder Books.
A job managing the renowned Chop Suey Books in Richmond, Virginia, is “where I learned the appraisal of books, to appreciate early editions, certain designers, publishing companies, writers,” notes McLennan. “That was the start of it. After about 20 years, it was time to do my own thing, so I opened the shop.”
Bottom Feeder is located at 415 Gettysburg St. in Point Breeze, just around the corner from the small Reynolds Street business district that contains Commonplace Coffee, Point Brugge (on Hastings), Ceremonial and more. So, it’s a little off the beaten path, but not too much.
Despite its rather unsavory name, Bottom Feeder Books is striking in its stark, symmetrical neatness — almost an art gallery for beautiful books. Modernist book covers from the 1950s are treated like proper works of art. Where some bookstores overwhelm you with disorganized piles of books everywhere (I like those kind too), this one evinces the clear, concise design of someone who wants each one in exactly the right place. Black-and-white checkerboard flooring and bright, clean white walls make the store seem larger than it is.
A big Yayoi Kusama art book caught my eye, so we talked about her amazing installation “Infinity Dots Mirrored Room” at the Mattress Factory, and a documentary out about her (she has had a pretty hard, if amazing life).
“Anything and everything,” says McLennan, when describing his store’s specialties. “Literature, poetry, film, art theory, a little philosophy, things like that. Didn’t really see the need to break it into sections; a lot of the writers fall into multiple sections. It’s all alphabetical.”
There’s a particular avant-garde and underground focus here. The selection spans a vast chasm of time, from the works of literary/cinema/theatre polymath Antonin Artaud, who scandalized the tumultuous art world of the 1920s, to a compilation of the Touch and Go ‘zine, the frenzied, xeroxed underground punk chronicle that spawned one of the greatest record labels of the 1980s and 1990s. In the shop you’ll find essential works from every era, from Surrealist leader André Breton, to literary provocateur Kathy Acker to James Baldwin, Mikhail Bulgakov and William S. Burroughs.
“This is a place where you can find affordable paperback copies of hard-to-find titles next to first and limited editions of classics,” notes McLennan. “Bottom Feeder Books is a store for everyone from the curious reader to the serious collector.”
Book covers of course lend themselves perfectly as showcases for art, so that’s one thing McLennan collects.
“I always kind of highlight late ’50s modern designers: Grove Press, New Directions, things like that,” he notes.
Everything in the store is used, except for a handful of books up by the front register. They’re all encased in a clear plastic sleeve (not unlike a record sleeve) to limit damage to older, more delicate books from browsing.
“Slowly, I’ll be adding some new releases; some new art monographs as they come out,” McLennan says.
Point Breeze is a great neighborhood, but doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic from people who don’t live there. But it seemed right to McLennan.
“Basically, it’s hard to find a retail space,” McLennan explains. “It was a pet store. It needed some work, but I could envision certain things and it took me about two months. I just really ripped out everything, started from scratch, painted the walls, redid the tiles … I worked a job building sets for theatre in Richmond, so I learned how to use power tools and had a vision in my head.”
He says he’d like to do some programming for the shop, but is still trying to imagine what that will look like.
“I’ve been here two years almost,” says McLennan. “But they were two weird (pandemic) years, for sure. I’d love to start doing some readings, and so on. There’s plenty of space in the front there.”
So, now that so much of our lives have moved online, why is a physical bookstore still relevant?
“I want to meet people in the community,” says McLennan. “I haven’t started any online selling yet. I don’t want to rush that. I want to have what I have available — for Pittsburgh. There are a lot of people that want a bookstore to go to, you know what I mean? You can shop online and find good deals, but you don’t know exactly what you’re getting. Here, you can come here and see it and touch it, and find things you didn’t know you were looking for.”