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Lower Burrell woman opens used bookstore using late father's collection

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Thursday, April 24, 2014, 1:06 a.m.
Karen Watkins of Lower Burrell, poses for a portrait inside The Last Word used bookstore that she is opening with her husband, Chris, located along Leechburg Road in Lower Burrell, on Wednesday April 23, 2014.
Dan Speicher | For Valley News Dispatch
Karen Watkins of Lower Burrell, poses for a portrait inside The Last Word used bookstore that she is opening with her husband, Chris, located along Leechburg Road in Lower Burrell, on Wednesday April 23, 2014.

One man's unrealized plans for opening a bookstore in Gilpin is becoming his daughter's business in Lower Burrell.

Since last year, Karen Watkins of Lower Burrell has been sifting through the massive book collection left behind by her father, Paul Radion Jr., who died just over a year ago.

A native of New Kensington raised in Gilpin, Radion came back to the area in 2009 with six tractor-trailers full of books from the bookstore he ran in Newport, N.H.

He wanted to open a store in the former Gilpin Elementary School, but never did.

About 15,000 books — roughly 10 percent of Radion's stockpile — now makes up the inventory of his daughter's bookstore, “The Last Word.” It's at 2909 Leechburg Road in the former location of Speranza Photography. Watkins will introduce her business with a two-day grand opening on Friday and Saturday.

The store's name “is kind of a play on words, if you think about it,” Watkins said. “You figure Dad's dream, he never got to realize it. I took a bad situation and turned it into something good. It's kind of having the last word and the last say on things.”

Watkins is starting her store in an environment for bookstores that is actually better than popularly thought, according to Oren Teicher, chief executive officer of the American Booksellers Association in White Plains, N.Y. Founded in 1900, the not-for-profit trade organization represents independently owned bookstores nationwide.

“There's been a narrative for a long time about independent book shops being up against the wall, fighting the big guys, fighting Amazon, fighting large national chains,” Teicher said. “For the last four years, there has been modest growth in the number of independent bookstores across the country.”

There is path to success for bookstores, but it takes time, Teicher said.

“Across the country, indies are surviving because they are involved in their community. They work with school systems, local businesses and all kinds of community organizations to be a source of information about books. That doesn't happen overnight,” he said. “Some of the most successful stores across the country took a long time to be established. For any new store starting from scratch, there's a long road in front of them.”

Watkins figured she unloaded about a third of the roughly 150,000 books her father left her through a series of sales last year from the old Kensington Electric building off Route 66 in Bethel Township, where the books had been in storage.

From what was left, Watkins said she hand picked the used and new books to stock her 1,200-square-foot store.

“I have quite the variety of books, I really do, from every genre and every category on a wide variety of subjects,” she said.

The remainder, three trucks worth, were sent to Better World Books, an online book seller in Indiana. What it can't sell will be given to charities or recycled, Watkins said.

Some boxes of books that were never opened were among those sent away.

Watkins, a former retail store manager, will run The Last Word with her husband, Christopher Watkins. Future plans could include adding a cafe or coffee shop, she said.

“Right now, we'll start off small and see how things go and how the public responds to everything,” she said.

In addition to the store, Watkins said she will also sell books online through eBay, Amazon and Abe Books.

“I wanted to have something for myself and didn't want to work for another company until I retired. I wanted my husband and I to have something good for us and good for possibly other family members in the future,” she said.

“More than anything else, we wanted to bring something good back to the community,” she said. “We didn't want to let Dad's dream completely go to waste.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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