City Books' new 'edition' blends many genres
At the grand opening March 19 of City Books on the North Side, owner Arlan Hess was chatting with a visitor when she heard two words that warmed her heart.
“Oooh, Kierkegaard,” said Elspeth Vaughn of Shadyside upon discovering a book by the Danish philosopher.
“Thank you for that,” Hess said, noting the volume in question was in French. “That would make Ed very happy.”
Ed is Ed Gelblum, the former owner of City Books who passed away in 2015. His South Side bookshop was dominated by philosophical and academic works. While Hess wants to keep the spirit of the former location alive, she also is expanding the store's bibliophilic footprint.
“It was hard to see a lot of the really good books because they were overshadowed by his larger collections,” said Hess, a Mt. Lebanon resident who taught literature and creative writing at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington County before buying City Books. “So, to pay it back, I've tried to rebalance into a general bookstore.”
The new location on Galveston Avenue is 600 square feet in a space that used to be a barbershop. The new version of City Books will feature approximately 5,000 of the 20,000 books Hess purchased from Gelblum's heirs. But it retains the former location's eclectic feel, even if Sandra Brown novels are now in closer proximity to the works of philosophers Kant and Santayana and more home-and-garden, travel and culinary books are available.
Hess wanted to keep the bookshop within city limits and reflect Pittsburgh's standing in the 21st century as a cosmopolitan and diverse locale.
“The city has changed, and City Books has to change with it,” she said. “I want to serve a diverse audience. I love being on the North Side, being close to Manchester. All of the children's books we have now have diverse protagonists, because if you're going to have adult readers, you have to have children who read. And I want to serve all those children.”
At the opening, a steady stream of customers came to browse and purchase books. Vaughn said she found books that would normally be found in a library.
“It's a lot nicer than most big, stupid bookstores,” Vaughn said. “It seems really nice, and the people who are running it seem to be educated.”
“This is wonderful,” said Eugene Wilson, a North Side resident who moved to the area from Murrysville eight years ago. “It's a great addition to the neighborhood.”
The store's coziness will not preclude book signings and literary events. When City Books hosts its first poetry reading April 19, Hess will create space by rolling the interior bookshelves, which sit on coasters, to the sides and back of the shop.
City Books is the latest independent bookseller to open in the city within the past five years, joining the East End Book Exchange in Bloomfield, Classic Lines in Squirrel Hill and Amazing Books, with locations in Squirrel Hill and Downtown. Hess thinks there's room for all the indie booksellers, given the area's affection for mom-and-pop shops with a personal touch.
“People are tired of big-box stores,” Hess said, “and the pendulum is swinging back toward relationship-building with stores and service.”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.