"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

6 indie bookstores you’ll love, all thriving in Pittsburgh

Every independent bookshop, like a good novel, has its own story to tell.

As we explored six of Pittsburgh’s best, we set out to solve a mystery: How have these unique businesses, some nearly a century old and others much newer, escaped the fate of chain stores such as Waldenbooks and Borders?

A few years ago, independent bookstores nationwide were in peril. But instead of becoming anachronistic outposts of literacy, independent bookshops are now thriving.

According to the American Booksellers Association, approximately 570 independent bookstores have opened in the U.S. since 2009, bringing the total number of shops to a little over 2,200.

Author Dennis Palumbo visits Oakmont. Image courtesy of Mystery Lovers Bookshop.

Mystery Lovers Bookshop
Oakmont Opened: 1990

When Natalie Sacco and her husband Trevor Thomas bought Mystery Lovers Bookshop three years ago, they knew there was a tradition to uphold. The cozy shop in Oakmont’s business district has been the pulse of Western Pennsylvania’s mystery community for 28 years. Any attempts to deviate from the mystery genre would not only devastate devoted readers, but also be economically foolish.

 “Mystery Lovers has been able to weather all those storms because of that niche,” Sacco says. “The store has always held on to this very core customer base. You have these mystery fans who want to talk to people. They want to talk about mysteries and get recommendations.” Since it opened in 1990, Mystery Lovers has known how to pick winners: They’ve hosted numerous unknown writers who went on to huge careers, including Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane, Lisa Scottoline, Craig Johnson, and Ian Rankin.

It’s a great place to meet authors one-on-one. At the ongoing event series, Coffee & Crime, you won’t find “an author standing up there lecturing from a podium,” Sacco says. “They’re sitting down, at eye level with the audience,” as people drink coffee and dive deep into conversation about sleuths and villains.

Sacco credits Mary Alice Gorman and Richard Goldman, who owned Mystery Lovers from its opening until 2012, for creating a strong foundation and a loyal customer base. “They kept it going for 22 years,” Sacco says. “They continue to support us and be good advocates in the community. We’ve gotten a lot of goodwill from authors who know them and want to come to the store because they knew Richard and Mary Alice.”

“I think people want conversation, they want a human connection,” says Susan Hans O’Connor, owner of Sewickley’s Penguin Bookshop. “They want to talk about ideas; they want to talk about books they’ve already read or that they haven’t read that they should read.”

Stephanie Flom, executive director of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, agrees that conversation and that the sharing of ideas are key.

“Independent bookstores are essential to the health of our community,” Flom says. “We say that the mission of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures is to create community, stimulate public discourse and inspire creativity and a passion for the literary arts. Isn’t that what happens in indie bookstores every day?”

Ready to go exploring? Here’s a guide to some of Pittsburgh’s coolest literary hangouts.   Read more!

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