Townsend Booksellers to close after 21 years; a pop-up operation settles into Bloomfield


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More flux in the independent booksellers market: Townsend Booksellers in Oakland is closing after 21 years, while the much smaller East End Book Exchange is moving from a pop-up operation to a fixed address in Bloomfield.

Townsend's, with about 25,000 volumes, specializes in fine used, rare, out-of-print, scholarly and unusual books in all fields -- from literature, philosophy and children's books to classical studies, history, math and science. Three-quarters of its stock is nonfiction.

Neil and Beverly Townsend, who live above their shop on Henry Street between the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon campuses, ran an old-style family operation.

"We never even had a cash register," Mr. Townsend said.

Now they are closing out their entire inventory with a sale beginning today. Books priced at $10 or less will drop to $1 -- that's 90 percent of the stock -- and others will be 25 percent off. Store hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

"We hope to find new homes for as many as possible," Mr. Townsend said, "and we want to thank our customers who've come here over the years. It's been a great location, surrounded by interesting, knowledgeable, creative people."

They will stay in the house, spreading their living space into the first floor once the books are gone.

Meanwhile, Lesley Rains, owner of East End Book Exchange, is fixing up a storefront at 4754 Liberty Ave., where she will settle down with her books after a year of pop-ups at the Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip District, as well as in Squirrel Hill, Garfield, Wilkinsburg and Braddock.

The new place has 1,600 square feet, compared with 80 in the Public Market. Ms. Rains, of Lawrenceville, expects to open with about 2,000 general-interest volumes -- fiction, history, cookbooks, children's books, what she calls "science for the non-scientist," and works by local authors on consignment. Her target for opening is somewhere between the election and Thanksgiving, to take advantage of the holiday season.

"The pop-up stores were a low-stakes way to dip my toes in the water without too much risk," she said. "Now I'm ready to take the leap. I valued my time at the [Public] Market, but now I'll be able to expand, host events and be more centralized in the community."

Bob Ziller knows a bit about transitioning from pop-up to a fixed space. He and fellow artist Laura Jean McLauglin opened Awesome Books' second location, on Liberty Avenue in Downtown's Cultural District, in February. The jury's still out on whether they'll stay there.

"We are selling books but not enough to warrant hiring people for more than six hours a week, so I'm here almost all the time," he said.

They've shortened their hours from 65 to 45 hours a week and the store now closed on Sundays.

"Our pop-up lease expires today," he said last Wednesday. "We'll stay through the holidays and see how it goes. I do think there's potential here, but the residential population needs to speed up a little."

The book business keeps changing as Internet retailers and electronic books take over much of the marketplace. Several independent and chain bookstores have closed over the years. And just last week, Random House and Penguin announced a merger that will make the new company the largest publisher of consumer books in the world.

The Townsends say e-books haven't affected them, but two other developments have. Libraries are digitizing rare books, so anyone can access them without owning them. And the advent of print-on-demand technology allows companies to make new copies of books that are out of copyright, to-order by the customer.

"Print on demand has really hurt us," Mrs. Townsend said.

Still, the couple believe bookstores remain a viable business.

When they moved to Pittsburgh in 1990 with their young son, they had been selling books to wholesalers from their home in Oakland, Calif., but decided to relocate after the previous year's major earthquake.

They made an exploratory visit, influenced by the Rand McNally Places Rated Almanac that named it the nation's most livable city in 1985, and found much to like, from Kennywood and Lake Erie to the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

They went home, sold their house and bought what Mr. Townsend calls "the neighborhood eyesore" on Henry Street, knocked out some walls, discovered a hidden fireplace that makes for a cozy space on a cold, wet autumn day, installed steel beam supports, painted and opened their doors.

At that time the only other bookstore in the immediate neighborhood was Bryn Mawr-Vassar, selling used books to raise scholarship money for the colleges (the shop closed in 2005 after 33 years in business). Then Caliban, another used bookshop specializing in literary first editions, opened about the same time as Townsend, just around the corner on Craig Street.

It was a good life, buying and selling unusual books and befriending customers. The Townsends' son, Dylan, walked to all his schools -- Liberty elementary in Shadyside and, in Oakland, Frick Middle School and Schenley High School -- and came home each day to his parents and books. Today he lives in China, teaching English and doing graphic design.

"He got an excellent education here," said Mrs. Townsend.

The Townsends' inventory spans about 100 categories. One shelf holds a hard-bound set of 63 Zane Grey stories about the American frontier, priced at $60. There are sections devoted to military history, Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania.

"We avoid best-sellers that you can get any place," Mr. Townsend said.

Some volumes date to the 1600s; the most valuable, a book on military strategy, is priced at $8,000.

Most of their customers have been students buying paperbacks, their parents who come for campus visits, visitors to the city and academic conference attendees.

Even though they believe the shop has run its course -- they will continue to sell some books online -- the couple said they feel bad about closing a place that sometimes served as a refuge.

"People would come in for a couple of hours and lose themselves in a book," Mrs. Townsend said. "It was an escape from the fast pace of modern life."

books

Sally Kalson: skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.


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