Bookstore trilogy sprouts in Bloomfield


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With the disappearance of nearly all big chain bookstores in the city, a few entrepreneurs have found a niche among a dozen scattered independent book shops.

When Tracy Thomas opened The Muse Stand in Bloomfield this year, she became the third book dealer in that neighborhood in the past two years -- all within four blocks on Liberty Avenue.

Bloomfield, also known as Pittsburgh's Little Italy is, for now, home to more independent bookstores than any city neighborhood.

The reasons include affordable rents, lots of foot traffic and proximity to young, educated population clusters in Oakland, Shadyside, Lawrenceville and Bloomfield itself.

"It was an organic development," said Dave Feehan, a consultant for the Bloomfield Development Corp., "but there is clearly a sense that they are in the right place at the right time."

One neighborhood's book boon feeds into a national trend, said Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association.

"The good news is that I've had this conversation many times lately," he said. "There is a revival of independents in urban, suburban and small communities. There's a popular narrative about them being an endangered species, but for the last several years, our membership numbers have stabilized and seen some modest growth."

The ABA counts 1,600 members in 2,200 locations, but untold more independents exist. None of the three in Bloomfield is a member.

The Big Idea Bookstore and East End Book Exchange both started as itinerants before settling in Bloomfield.

Big Idea was founded in 2001 and led a nomadic existence before settling first on Millvale Avenue, then around the corner at 4812 Liberty last year.

The East End Book Exchange began as a pop-up at several locations. Its owner, Lesley Rains, found a permanent home at 4754 Liberty Ave. one year ago.

"It seems like we are three distinct bookstores," Ms. Rains said. "I am happy to send people to the other two, and they send people to me."

The Big Idea, a cooperative, seized on the opportunity to promote all three stores using the moniker "bookstore row" on a Facebook page to promote events, special deals and new arrivals. The site is www.facebook.com/BookstoreRowPGH.

The Muse Stand is at 4524 Liberty next to Sound Cat Records, the site of a music store since the 1970s (first as Jim's Records and then Paul's CDs until last year). Ms. Thomas said she decided to sell only new books at The Muse Stand "so I wouldn't step on" what makes the other two bookstores different.

Big Idea, which also has a cafe, sells books, cards and other items with a bent toward social justice, philosophy and nihilism. The Book Exchange sells a wide range of books, almost exclusively used.

Ms. Thomas said she has found a niche market in magazine sales, from literary and art to science fiction.

"Any science fiction magazines I have go right out the door," she said. "I also sell a lot of classic literature."

A thoughtfully curated collection is the small bookstore's best chance for success, Mr. Teicher said.

The size of the store is less important now because if a customer wants a title, he can get it as fast as a book dealer can. If everyone preferred to order online, there would be no bookstores.

"The discovery of books happens in physical shops," Mr. Teicher said. "And there's data that shows booksellers and librarians remain the most trusted sources of information about books."

Mr. Teicher attributes several factors besides the diminution of the big box chains to the indie trend -- the growing buy-local movement, the affordability of technology, the promotional capacity of social media and the age-old entrepreneurial spirit.

It's still one of the most difficult businesses to sustain, he said, but today's small bookstore "has access to exactly the same technology the big boys do, but the cost has come way down, from point-of-sale systems to inventory control and payroll management systems. A decade ago, it didn't exist or was so costly only big corporations could afford it."

Ms. Rains founded the Book Exchange as a pop-up book store in 2010. She had amassed a small collection when she decided to be the bookstore she was looking for. During her vendor days at the Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip, she said she had asked herself, "Why don't I do this? I like books, and I like talking to people about books."

Ms. Thomas left a job as a domestic relations officer in family court to open the Muse Stand in May. She said she and her sister had a venture like this "on our bucket list."

Owners and staff at all three stores spoke of the affordability of rents in Bloomfield. Ms. Thomas said she chose Bloomfield in part because new restaurants and shops have opened along Liberty recently.

"Bloomfield is an absolute bargain right now, compared with some other great neighborhoods," Mr. Feehan said. "The second thing is location. It is almost ideally centered among Oakland, Shadyside, Friendship, Lawrenceville, East Liberty and the Strip."

Despite many slow days, the stores in Bloomfield are finding audiences in science fiction fan clubs, book clubs and for live readings.

"We have had a ton of really good days, and the literary scene is good," Ms. Rains said. She said opening a store was scary, "and it still makes me nervous, but it looks like we're poised for a good run."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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