Readers would do well to book this tour
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Bookstore tourism? Why not? Better to visit these quaint old (and new) shops now rather than wait a few years and tour the ruins.
OK, that's overstating things. Amazon, e-books and such are snatching sales from bookstores large and small, but there are still enough book-lovers out there to keep a handful of scrappy independent stores going.
After I wrote an homage Sunday to the Aspinwall Bookshop, which is fated to close, a reader called to alert me to Bookstore Tourism. It's an idea that originated about seven years ago with a Harrisburg writer named Larry Portzline, and this month there will be a Gilligan-like three-hour tour of independent stores here in Pittsburgh.
The $10 trolley tour is set to roll Sunday afternoon, Sept. 19, and includes Copacetic Comics in Polish Hill, Awesome Books in Garfield, Caliban Books and Phantom of the Attic (specializing in comic books and graphic novels) on Craig Street in Oakland, and Eljay's Books and Joseph-Beth Booksellers on the South Side.
That's all because Karen Lillis, a book-lover who moved here five years ago from New York, doesn't want to see our cultural landscape slide. She's also organizing a library tour -- including the old Allegheny Library, the Braddock Carnegie and the Lawrenceville branch of the Carnegie -- on Sunday, Sept. 12.
I met Ms. Lillis, 39, for coffee in Oakland and we sat at a picnic table in the shade, with the grand main branch of the Carnegie before us. I wanted to know why she was taking action rather than follow the intellectual's usual path: do nothing loudly.
"It is really devastating to see stores doing poorly," she said, and she hates that newspapers report the death of book stores as if that were a done deal.
She and her boyfriend, Tom Hendrickson, moved here from New York when the costs there got to be too much. "We spun the globe" and chose Pittsburgh, she said. She was immediately smitten with the city's libraries, far more welcoming places than the branch libraries in New York, and she always has been a sucker for book stores.
She grew up in Leesburg, Va., frequenting a classic "wooden bookstore with a bookstore dog," and in Manhattan's East Village she worked in the acclaimed St. Mark's Bookshop. She clerked there from age 27, "the age that rock stars die," to age 35, "the age that women stop stating their real age."
In those days, "My friendships revolved around the books we recommended to each other, enthused about, lent out, insisted be read, threw across the room and gave each other with heartfelt inscriptions."
She's writing a memoir about that, but she's already seeing this way of thinking disappear, even among readers. She received a master's degree in library science from the University of Pittsburgh in December (she's now working full time in the university's Cultural Studies Program) and was stunned to find that younger students didn't see much difference between a book or a blog or an online document.
She heard the various forms dismissed as "just information containers," a phrase she fairly spat because, for her, the physicality of a book is important.
"It's a currency of exchange between me and my friends."
Each bookstore is different, too. "They all have really different flavors." Each one represents "some human's idiosyncratic choosing -- machines should not choose books."
John Schulman, owner of Caliban Books, says about 60 percent of his business is now online but his store does well, too, "playing small ball."
Browsing a bookstore, Mr. Schulman said, is about "finding the thing next to the thing you're searching for, finding what you hadn't been searching for," and buying it.
"A neighborhood without a book shop is like breakfast without orange juice; it doesn't have the same feel."
Bookstore owners are a quirky lot. Dropping by Awesome Books at 5111 Penn Ave., I found a sign saying it's open weekdays only randomly or by appointment, but it's open weekends from "noon 'til the cows come home."
When I called Frank Oreto, co-owner of Eljay's Used Books on Carson Street, he made it clear he didn't have to be asked twice to be on this tour.
"Anyone coming in my store is always a good idea," he said.
For more information, on the book or library tours, call 412-421-1618 or go to www.spfpittsburgh.com/calendar.
First Published September 2, 2010 12:00 am