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