Walkabout: There's no mystery to the quiet appeal of an indie bookstore
Buff Rodman, left, and Margo Naus, center, remained as booksellers at Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont after Laurie Stephens, right, purchased the store last year.
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Some people prefer the texture of a real book, and most of them -- I mean, us -- grew up when there were no books you couldn't hold.
I like to turn the pages. I like their texture. I like the weight of the book in my hand, the feel of the spine, the aesthetic of ink on paper.
And if I have to buy a book, I prefer to buy it from a small, independent bookstore. That's getting harder to do; there aren't many left.
One of the few is the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, in its 23rd year of filling a niche. It changed hands last April when founders Mary Alice Gorman and Richard Goldman retired, but they stayed on through the summer to help the new owner, Laurie Stephens, make the transition and are in contact almost daily. Several staffers also stayed on.
Ms. Stephens said her big move was fate.
After graduating in library science from the University of Texas, she built a career as a librarian in public libraries, academic libraries and a school library.
"One summer," she said, "I cataloged a woman's private collection. She and her husband had a three-story building as a personal library, and the third floor was her mystery collection. She wanted a print catalog of all the books she had. Doing that, I read the canon of mysteries.
"Fast forward: The kids are grown and gone and my daughter lives in Pittsburgh, my son in Los Angeles. We decided to move to where one of our kids was for the last chapter of our lives. I'd always wanted to own a bookstore, so I canvassed Pittsburgh and, four months later, read that this store was for sale. It was on my daughter's birthday, when we came up here to be with her. We met Mary Alice and Richard then. Fate."
Ms. Stephens has also worked in bookstores and was director of the Arts & Letters Live series at the Dallas Museum of Art.
Mr. Goldman said departing the store "was easier than we thought it would be. We miss the regular customers and the staff, but we're really enjoying the freedom. Mary Alice is busy with the Carnegie Library board. I'm learning Italian, and we're planning a trip to Italy" among other travel.
It's easy to root for an independent bookstore's future. Its presence usually comes with tailored service and sales histories of customers.
Over the holidays, Ms. Stephens was heartened that so many shoppers said they wanted to "shop indie, and some people said, 'I wanted to shop in Oakmont.' "
She credited Mr. Goldman with building "a robust website that he still helps maintain" and a good point-of-sale database. She said Mr. Goldman and Ms. Gorman established a great relationship with publishers so that when an author has a signing, they could order from that inventory. They created a destination for authors, too, so that when 40 of them attend the store's Festival of Mystery every May, hundreds of readers come out.
In 2010, the store scored a Raven Award from the Mystery Writers of America "for our contribution to mystery writing, particularly our annual Festival of Mystery," according to mysterylovers.com.
On that site, customers can order any book, not just mysteries, and at the same time benefit the store with the sale.
Small bookstores need as much nourishment as they give back, but some people still use them as showrooms, making note of books that they then order elsewhere.
While in the store Monday, I noticed a few books that are not mysteries, one in particular that I read and couldn't put down -- Ann Patchett's "Bel Canto." It reminded me that in her hometown of Nashville, Tenn., Ms. Patchett last year opened an indie bookstore called Parnassus Books after another one folded and Borders closed. Interviewed in a 2011 New York Times article, she explained, "I have no interest in retail; I have no interest in opening a bookstore. But I also have no interest in living in a city without a bookstore."
Amen to that. In our city limits, several have sprouted in recent years: Awesome Books in Garfield and Downtown, and East End Book Exchange and The Big Idea Cooperative Bookstore in Bloomfield. For secondhand, we have the longstanding Caliban in Oakland and City Books in South Side.
First Published January 8, 2013 12:00 am