“Every independent bookstore takes on the personality of the owner, the person curating the books,” said Arlan Hess, owner of City Books, Pittsburgh’s oldest bookstore.
That insight goes a long way toward explaining both the appeal and success of places like Spark Books in Aspinwall, the Little Green Bookstore in Harmony, and Hess’s own City Books in the Old Allegheny Historic District of Pittsburgh.
Spark Books caters to young readers, but owner Adriene Rister is passionate about forming relationships with people of all ages in her community.
“We strive to be a warm space, a space where you feel happy and joyful when you come in our doors,” Rister explained. She accomplishes that goal through personal attention to her customers.
Spark Books offers a personalized book subscription program. Kids complete an interest form, then receive a monthly book, specifically selected for them, along with a note explaining why the book was chosen and a postcard inviting feedback about the selection.
Rister regularly asks her young patrons to peruse the advance reader copies of books she receives from publishers and to offer their feedback, tailoring her store’s merchandise accordingly. She is intentional about making sure readers of all races and backgrounds will find books that represent their unique identities, and a firm believer in the idea that books should be both mirrors and windows for children.
That care and support have come back to Spark Books in multitudes during the pandemic.
“March 2020 hit, and it was challenging, but we have had a wonderful response from the community,” Rister said. “Shop-local love has continued to keep our doors open. That support speaks volumes and has buoyed me during these last months.”
Ultimately, the personal connections are what keep Rister so engaged in this enterprise, which the former nurse and public health professional turned small business owner founded three years ago.
“I am deeply passionate about having a personal relationship with the people of our community,” Rister said. “We want to make the little celebrations in life—like birthdays or other special occasions—meaningful and memorable. We are so honored to be part of those moments for kids.”
The Little Green Bookstore, co-owned by sisters Christine Border and Lisa Fico, had the courage to open in February 2021 during the height of the pandemic.
“We never considered the pandemic as a negative factor in whether to open because people had gone back to reading during those months,” Border explained. “If anything, I think the situation has caused people to put emphasis on shopping local.”
Like Rister, Border believes the personal touch is what differentiates independent bookstores from larger chain stores or mammoth online competitors.
“We know our clients personally, we know what they want to see in our store, and we curate the inventory to the demands of our readers,” Border said.
The entire experience at an independent bookstore is different, Border explained.
“Conversations start easily here; people overhear conversations we’re having with a customer, and they end up walking out of here with a new book based on another reader’s endorsement,” Border said.
In addition to books, the Little Green Bookstore stocks a variety of book-themed items, including keychains, candles and puzzles. They consciously support other small businesses when choosing inventory. Border is excited about a new line of book-themed Christmas ornaments crafted by an artist who creates these items from the pages of books.
Other unique offerings include a monthly subscription box and a focus on new indie authors. Its location in the heart of Harmony sets the Little Green Bookstore apart as well, Border said.
“We chose to open a store within eight miles of a large book chain; usually you see that in reverse. But this is our hometown. Our roots are here,” Border explained.
The gamble seems to be a popular one with customers, and the sisters plan to open a second location in nearby Zelienople in 2022. They are confident that their enterprise will continue to thrive because they offer something big-box stores cannot.
“When you walk into a small, independent bookstore, you’re not overwhelmed with titles, and you feel like there’s a friend behind the counter who can help you find something to read,” Border said.
That commitment to solid personal relationships with her customers is a value Hess has espoused since taking over ownership of City Books in 2015.
“I know the names of many of my customers and can ask about their children and families when they come in,” Hess explained. “Knowing them, knowing their taste, allows me to make specific recommendations about books.”
Another tenet of Hess’s approach to independent bookselling is her commitment to her city.
“A local independent bookstore is a functioning, vital part of the community,” Hess said.
Faithful to that vision, Hess has participated in food and book drives for local people in need. She is passionate about giving back to her neighbors and is currently partnering with Hello Neighbor on a gift card drive to support refugees in the Pittsburgh area.
Hess also works to amplify the voices of Black writers. City Books gives her a platform, Hess said, and she strives to use that space to lift up diverse authors. Part of that initiative includes a distinctive writer-in-residence program.
Hess launched the program early in 2020, though the pandemic forced her to shift and broaden her concept of space, she explained.
“By the fall of 2020, we had three writers-in-residence who were still physically in their own spaces, so I worked hard to get their names out,” said Hess.
Some of her innovative solutions included hosting author readings on YouTube and creating virtual bookshelves for the authors. The spring of 2021 was the first time Hess was able to host a writer in the physical store.
Perhaps because she is so invested in her community, the community turned out to support City Books during these challenging months. Though Hess closed her physical doors for months at a time, customers followed her to online platforms. She continued to connect readers to books via her website and Instagram. She is a force on TikTok, where @citybookspgh has more than 46,000 followers.
“As a used-book bookstore, we are a living and evolving thing. This store changes depending on what we have in stock, which is always changing. I love that about being the owner of a used bookstore,” Hess said.
Their commitment to building vibrant community, attention to making readers feel seen and passion for their work are ultimately the common threads among three uniquely charming independent bookstores thriving today despite the pandemic.