Sewickley bookshop moving after sale

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The Pittsburgh region's oldest independent bookstore has had a few near-death experiences in recent years, but it now has a new lease on life.

Penguin Bookshop, a fixture on Sewickley's main retail street since 1929, has been bought by Susan Hans O'Connor and will move -- along with all of its bookshelves -- directly across the street, into a space previously occupied by the Sewickley Bread Co. at 417 Beaver St.

"This is an answer to my prayers," said Janet McDanel, Penguin's current owner who said the store will remain open during the move into its new quarters, which is expected to be completed by Feb. 1.

Ms. McDanel, along with her husband, bought the store in 2007 after hearing it was going out of business. They spent $1 million renovating the store into a charming space with large windows, a fireplace and gleaming wooden bookshelves. It's also a "green," LEED-certified building.

"We felt strongly about supporting the community," Ms. McDanel said, "and if we want to keep Sewickley the place that it is, it needs a bookshop."

While customers remained loyal, economics played a role in her decision to sell. With two stories, an elevator, a bathroom and a large basement, "this is a costly building to maintain," said Ms. McDanel on Tuesday, adding that she also wanted to spend more time with her husband and family.

"The shop needs someone younger," she said.

Enter Ms. O'Connor, 51, a Sewickley resident who knows her way around a book. During the 1990s, she worked in New York publishing, eventually becoming an associate editor at Penguin Group. It should be noted that the two Penguins are not connected -- the first owners named the store after a favorite novel, Anatole France's "Penguin Island," published in 1908.

Ms. O'Connor and her husband, Kolia O'Connor, moved here in 2003 with their twin boys when he became head of Sewickley Academy. Since then Ms. O'Connor has worked part time as a substitute teacher in the Pittsburgh public schools and as a freelance editor. She also wrote numerous reading group guides for books by Geraldine Brooks, Kim Edwards and others.

"Initially I didn't think I could swing it financially," Ms. O'Connor said about taking over Penguin Bookshop. But when she went over the numbers, she realized she could make it work in a new building with lower overhead.

At an "Opening a Bookshop" workshop at the American Booksellers Association this fall, "the takeaway message was that independent bookstores can still succeed in this era of the e-book," she said.

"You just have to be cautious about costs, and very hands-on with inventory management, which is an art and a science" -- in other words, know your customers and turn books over as quickly as possible.

The space will be configured differently -- Penguin's current location is about 1,650 square feet with two stories and an elevator. The new location, also 1,650 square feet, is long and narrow.

One thing won't change: Penguin will still be "a high quality bookstore that caters to the avid reader," Ms. O'Connor said. As it has in the past, the store will concentrate on fiction, best-sellers, books of local interest and an extensive children's section.

Independent bookstores are growing across the country, actually, despite the proliferation of e-books and Amazon's recent announcement that it will deliver on Sundays. In fact three independents have opened within the past two years in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

"We don't expect everyone to buy every single thing from us, but if enough people occasionally buy a book or a paperback, we'll make it," Ms. O'Connor said. "We do very well with New York Times best-sellers, but also with what we call the independent bound, or 'indiebound' book that's off the beaten path.

"Other than that, you just have to keep yourself relevant and important to the community, and do things as a store that your community feels are valuable, irreplaceable and are unique to the bookshop, such as bringing authors in and working with schools, churches, community organizations," she said. "We already have loyalty, but we need to sustain that loyalty."

Ms. O'Connor has kept in touch with her New York contacts -- when word got out last summer that Penguin was up for sale, her former colleague, veteran editor and publisher Pamela Dorman, sent her an email with a link to the news and a question -- "An opportunity?"

After Ms. O'Connor responded to say she was actually considering it, "I got an email back from her saying 'OMG, I was just kidding!' -- but she and my other friends are being incredibly supportive."

Will they whisper in her ear about a promising new author?

"That's what I'm counting on -- whispers in my ear," Ms. O'Connor said.

Mackenzie Carpenter, mcarpenter@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1949. On Twitter @MackenziePG.


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