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Independent bookshops find ways to keep going with new owners

| Friday, Aug. 28, 2015, 5:58 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Natalie Sacco and Trevor Thomas stand in their bookstore, Mystery Lover's Bookshop in Oakmont on Friday, Aug. 14, 2015.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Susan Hans O'Connor, owner of Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley, opened her bookstore in its current location in February 2014.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Susan Hans O'Connor, owner of Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley, sets up a sign outside of her store on Wednesday, August 26, 2015.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Natalie Sacco and Trevor Thomas stand in their bookstore, Mystery Lover's Bookshop in Oakmont on Friday, Aug. 14, 2015.

New owners at two venerable area bookstores are working on a happy ending for the saga of the independent bookseller.

In May, partners Natalie Sacco and Trevor Thomas became the third owners of the 25-year-old Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont.

Last year, Susan Hans O'Connor became the sixth owner of the Penguin Bookshop that has been a fixture in Sewickley since its opening in 1929.

They're part of a new group of small, independent booksellers around the country who are not afraid to compete against Barnes & Noble and Amazon, which offer big discounts and overnight delivery, as well as the growing popularity of Kindles, Nooks and other e-readers.

“Things are getting better for independent bookstores,” says Eileen Dengler, executive director of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, a regional trade association of locally owned, independent booksellers, authors and publishers that covers six states including Pennsylvania. “More independent bookstores are opening and (existing stores) are changing ownership instead of closing. Most stores have been reporting a very good year.”

But Dengler would also discourage those who envision bookstore ownership as an opportunity to sit in a comfy chair reading books and discussing literature with customers.

“It's never easy,” Dengler says. “It's a lot of work. You are a retailer selling a very specific product. But it's worth it if you go into it with your eyes open.”

Sacco, 31, knew Mystery Lovers from growing up in Oakmont. She and Thomas, 35, a Murrysville native, were both passionate about books and were living in Cleveland when they learned the bookstore was up for sale.

They both had family here and had always planned to move back, especially after the birth of their second son.

“When I heard about the bookstore, it felt like a sign, something meant to be,” she says.

She brings a background of working for a publisher in its digital-media division, which she thinks will be helpful in widening the store's web presence. One of her first tasks was opening an Instagram account for the store.

Former owner Laurie Stephens offered to mentor them through their first months as owners.

“It takes months of getting accounts changed over and learning the process. But now we're into the groove,” Thomas says.

O'Connor had been an associate editor at Viking Penguin before moving to Edgeworth with her husband, Koila, the head of Sewickley Academy.

“I had always been passionate about reading and books. When the opportunity came up in my new hometown of Sewickley, I thought it would be good to learn a different aspect of the book world and see all the pieces come together,” O'Connor says. “I knew it was going to be a tremendous amount of work. It turned out to be more fun than I thought.”

The key to success for an independent bookseller is to offer services not available elsewhere, Dengler says.

“A bookseller knows the books,” Dengler says.

“So many times people come in and don't know what they are looking for. Customers come in looking for new ideas,” Thomas says.

Matching books to potential readers takes time. That's where independent booksellers have an advantage.

“I always ask are there books or authors they like and what kind of book they are currently interested in reading,” O'Connor says. “If they're going to the beach, they may want something light and fun to read. At another time, they may want something about politics or current events.”

They're also able to advise grandparents on the latest in children's literature and what will be a good fit with a child's ever-changing interests, age and reading levels.

It's not unusual for customers to say they're looking for a book with a title they only vaguely remember by an author whose name might be one of two choices and there was a review about it in a magazine sometime last year. “We will find the author,” says Thomas, who enjoys the challenge.

An independent bookseller is also a good source for hard-to-find titles, he adds: “Smaller publishing companies don't put their stuff on Amazon. They want you to go to a brick-and-mortar store because they are not going to make money with Amazon.”

Stores like Mystery Lovers and Penguin also help create a sense of community that people are looking for, Dengler says.

“We are a community space,” Sacco says.

Bookstores organize book clubs and book-signing events that feature local or nationally known authors, and they take part in community events such as Sewickley's Night Mart or the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures series.

“It's about getting books to people,” O'Connor says. “It's also about bringing Sewickley to the work and the world to Sewickley. We are expanding boundaries. We bring in authors from New York and around the world and they bring ideas to our community and store.”

Shops like this are destinations that bring people into a community that they then explore.

Customers come to Mystery Lovers to browse the shelves for what's new or arrive with a list of 10 books they want to buy, Sacco says. When done, they go up the street to the bakery or have lunch at one of Oakmont's restaurants.

The books they buy help enhance relationships with others in a way that e-books can't, Thomas says.

“Kindles are great. But you can't pull it off the shelf to lend (a book) to a friend,” he says. “You can't ask an author to sign a Kindle.”

Alice T. Carter is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808, acarter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @ATCarter_Trib.

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