Pins for booklovers, for sale at Classic Lines book shop. Image courtesy of Classic Lines.

Every independent bookshop, like a good novel, has its own story to tell.

As we explored six of Pittsburgh’s best, we set out to solve a mystery: How have these unique businesses, some nearly a century old and others much newer, escaped the fate of chain stores such as Waldenbooks and Borders?

A few years ago, independent bookstores nationwide were in peril. But instead of becoming anachronistic outposts of literacy, independent bookshops are now thriving.

According to the American Booksellers Association, approximately 570 independent bookstores have opened in the U.S. since 2009, bringing the total number of shops to a little over 2,200.

“I think people want conversation, they want a human connection,” says Susan Hans O’Connor, owner of Sewickley’s Penguin Bookshop. “They want to talk about ideas; they want to talk about books they’ve already read or that they haven’t read that they should read.”

Stephanie Flom, executive director of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, agrees that conversation and that the sharing of ideas are key.

“Independent bookstores are essential to the health of our community,” Flom says. “We say that the mission of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures is to create community, stimulate public discourse and inspire creativity and a passion for the literary arts. Isn’t that what happens in indie bookstores every day?”

Ready to go exploring? Here’s our guide to some of Pittsburgh’s coolest literary hangouts.

Shoppers exploring Penguin in Sewickley. Image courtesy of Penguin Bookshop.

Penguin Bookshop, Sewickley
Opened: 1929

When O’Connor bought Penguin Bookshop in 2014, she knew it was “a very precipitous time” for independent bookstores. But “I had a good feeling it was going to be an amazing experience and it has been, and even more so,” she says. “It’s wonderful to be a part of such an important community institution that has such a long tradition.”

This is the place for advice and ideas: Penguin’s staffers are enthusiastic readers who can direct regular and new customers to titles catering to their interests. That personal touch is hard to duplicate online or at chains and big-box outlets. “It’s the opposite of sitting at home by yourself and staring at a screen,” O’Connor says.

Located in the heart of Sewickley’s business district, Penguin hosts more than 50 author events per year. In 2016, the bookstore was the host and ticketing agent for Stephen King’s appearance at Sewickley Academy in Edgeworth. Instead of an online sale, the bookshop sold physical tickets to fans, some who camped out for a chance to see the author of “The Shining” and “The Dead Zone.”

“We had people from Canada, Connecticut, Ohio, all over the place,” O’Connor says, “because we were the only store on his tour that was doing a physical ticket sale.”

Penguin Bookshop: 417 Beaver St., Sewickley, 15143. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Closed Sundays. 412-741-3838.

Author Dennis Palumbo visits Oakmont. Image courtesy of Mystery Lovers Bookshop.

Mystery Lovers Bookshop, Oakmont
Opened: 1990

When Natalie Sacco and her husband Trevor Thomas bought Mystery Lovers Bookshop three years ago, they knew there was a tradition to uphold. The cozy shop in Oakmont’s business district has been the pulse of Western Pennsylvania’s mystery community for 28 years. Any attempts to deviate from the mystery genre would not only devastate devoted readers, but also be economically foolish.

“Mystery Lovers has been able to weather all those storms because of that niche,” Sacco says. “The store has always held on to this very core customer base. You have these mystery fans who want to talk to people. They want to talk about mysteries and get recommendations.”

Since it opened in 1990, Mystery Lovers has known how to pick winners: They’ve hosted numerous unknown writers who went on to huge careers, including Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane, Lisa Scottoline, Craig Johnson, and Ian Rankin.

It’s a great place to meet authors one-on-one. At the ongoing event series, Coffee & Crime, you won’t find “an author standing up there lecturing from a podium,” Sacco says. “They’re sitting down, at eye level with the audience,” as people drink coffee and dive deep into conversation about sleuths and villains.

Sacco credits Mary Alice Gorman and Richard Goldman, who owned Mystery Lovers from its opening until 2012, for creating a strong foundation and a loyal customer base. “They kept it going for 22 years,” Sacco says. “They continue to support us and be good advocates in the community. We’ve gotten a lot of goodwill from authors who know them and want to come to the store because they knew Richard and Mary Alice.”

Mystery Lovers: 512 Allegheny River Boulevard, Oakmont 15139. Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Sundays, 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. 412-828-4877.

The White Whale on a snowy day last winter. Image courtesy of White Whale Bookstore.

White Whale Bookstore, Bloomfield
Opened: 2012 (as East End Book Exchange)

Adlai and Jill Yeomans moved to Pittsburgh in 2012 after working for Hachette Books in New York City, seeking a quieter and less hectic lifestyle. While the idea of owning a bookstore was appealing, it was something they were only considering for their retirement. But when East End Book Exchange in Bloomfield became available in 2016, they decided the time was right.

“The existing customer base that we came into was crucial,” Adlai Yeomans says. “Opening a bookstore or any business is really challenging. To be able to step into a situation where the place was already known and loved in the community was a plus for us.”

You’ll find plenty that’s new, plus used inventory to browse. After purchasing East End Book Exchange, which primarily sold used books, the Yeomans remodeled and rebranded the shop featuring new titles.

“Jill and I always envisioned the place as new inventory,” Adlai Yeomans says. “We were familiar with and capable of understanding the new book market.”

White Whale: 4754 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh 15224. Hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 11 a.m. – 7 p.m., Sundays, noon – 4 p.m., closed Mondays. 412-224-2847

A street view of the North Side’s independent bookstore. Image courtesy of City Books.

City Books, North Side
Opened: 2016

Arlan Hess knew a bookstore could succeed on the North Side, but the popularity of City Books — spiritual and physical heir to the late Ed Gelblum’s iconic and longstanding South Side bookshop — has surprised her.

The 600-square-foot store features only a quarter of the 20,000 used books Hess originally bought from Gelblum’s estate. But the Galveston Street location, two blocks from the businesses on W. North Ave., has proven to be perfect for a neighborhood that lacked a venue for cultural events. Hess hosts book signings and musicians, special events and staged dramatic readings.

“There’s a lot happening and changing on the North Side,” says Hess, who taught literature and creative writing at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. before retiring a few years ago. Since then, she’s cultivated a regular customer base — learning their names and even remembering what kind of books they read.

“I might say, ‘we were just talking about Agatha Christie and look what someone traded in and I held it back because of you,” Hess says. “They love that. That can’t get that at Amazon. Amazon is an algorithm. When you walk into a bookstore, it’s a person and a personality.”

Hess can’t compete with Amazon’s financial might, but she can greet customers with a smile and provide them with an outlet to talk about their favorite authors and books. And she expects independent bookstores to keep on enduring in this market. “Whether it’s my store or somebody else’s store, if something happens to an independent bookstore in Pittsburgh,” she says, “somebody else is going to step in and open another one.”

City Books: 908 Galveston Ave., Pittsburgh, 15233. Hours: Tuesday – Friday, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, noon – 5 p.m.; closed Mondays. 412-321-7323

A welcoming display of featured books at the North Hills’ independent book shop. Image courtesy of Riverstone Books.

Riverstone Books, McCandless
Opened: 2017

In addition to filling a void in the North Hills, Barbara Jeremiah wanted to open a different kind of bookstore in which anything was possible — where any idea, however outlandish or seemingly impossible, would at least be considered.

Thus, her favorite event since Riverstone opened in October 2017 paired a book signing with a whiskey tasting.

“It was exactly the kind of event I envisioned when I opened the store,” she said of featuring Meredith Meyer Grelli and Mark Meyer, the owners of Wigle Whiskey and co-authors of “The Whiskey Rebellion and the Rebirth of Rye.”

Since Borders Books at the Shoppes at Northway closed in 2011, the only haven for book lovers in the North Hills had been Half Price Books on McKnight Road. Riverstone not only offers a broader range of new titles than the used books outlet, but it also features a staff of book enthusiasts.

“The benefit of having a brick-and-mortar store is keeping your money in the community and having someone tailoring their recommendations specifically for you, and getting an immediate answer to any questions from that person,” says Christine Yockel, the store’s manager, who started at Riverstone in April 2018.

There’s also a near-primal sensation that occurs in bookstores. Yockel says many customers not only comment on the way a book feels, but how it smells. A study by the Heritage Science Journal describes the aroma of old books as “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla,” and new books also have an irresistible scent.

To hold something, to smell it, provides an antidote to technology overload.

“People are so overwhelmed with technology that turning off devices has become something we enjoy,” Yockel says. “It makes us feel more at peace and more relaxed without all the distractions around us.”

Riverstone Books: 8850 Covenant Ave., McCandless, 15237. Hours: Monday – Thursday, 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 9 a.m. – 8 p.m.; Sundays, noon – 6 p.m. 412-366-1001.

More Pittsburgh bookstores we love: 

City of Asylum Books

spaces corners

Copacetic Comics

Rickert & Beagle

Beyond Bedtime Books

Did we mention your favorite? If not, tell us in the comments or on Facebook: What is your go-to Pittsburgh bookstore?

Rege Behe is an award-winning journalist, writer, and editor. A native of Trafford, Pa., he's covered school board meetings, reviewed concerts, and interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winners including Michael Chabon, Ron Chernow, and David McCullough. He never goes anywhere without a book, likes to hike, and is fond of animals.