Bloomfield bookstore owner bucks naysayers
When Lesley Rains decided to become a bookseller in 2011, she was bucking a few trends.
Bookstores — especially small, independent bookstores — were closing in droves. Ebooks, convenient and easy to acquire online, seemed poised to threaten the physical book just as digital music was making CDs obsolete. Worst of all, reading itself seemed to be a rare activity for anyone under the age of 30.
“All the doomsayers and naysayers were saying no one is reading books anymore, kids aren't reading,” says Rains, 34, owner of the East End Book Exchange in Bloomfield. “I think that's just not true. Reading and books are as vibrant as they've always been. I sell more classic literature to young people than anything else.”
The East End Book Exchange has evolved from a pop-up store at the Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip District to its brick-and-mortar store on Liberty Avenue. Rains, who started by selling her own books (and those of her parents), has a fully stocked store that mostly features used books, although she estimates 10 percent of her business comes from selling new titles.
In the past year, the Mt. Lebanon native, who lives in Lawrenceville, has added two part-time employees and says the store is profitable.
Not bad for someone who was a Ph.D candidate in history at Penn State when she decided to “dip a toe in” to see if she liked selling books.
“I just thought ... that for this community, there could stand to be another small, independent store,” Rains says. “I thought there was a need there, and if I kept it small and wasn't trying to be all things to all people, I could make it work.”
The Exchange features fiction and nonfiction, history and mysteries, with special attention paid to writers from Western Pennsylvania. Lori Jakiela, a writer from Trafford who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, remembers stopping by Rains' booth at the Pittsburgh Public Market when it opened.
“She showed me book after book by Pittsburgh writers, saying, ‘You have to read this. The writer's from Pittsburgh,'” Jakiela says. “She sold me my copy of ‘Last Night at the Lobster' by Stewart O'Nan, still one of my favorites of his. She sold me Kathleen George's ‘Taken.' She tried to sell me one of my husband Dave Newman's novels, and I felt weird telling her I was married to the guy and I could get copies for free. Instead, I just let her tell me how great she thought the book was and why I should read it.”
Despite her in-depth knowledge of Pittsburgh writers and their works, Rains didn't know anyone in the literary community. That changed when Sherrie Flick, another Pittsburgh writer, contacted Rains via Facebook and suggested she set up a pop-up bookstore at Wood-Fired Words, an event at UnSmoke Systems Artspace in Braddock in October 2012.
“I thought my audience could be her future book buyers and suspected they wanted to meet her as much as she wanted to meet them,” Flick says. “I guess I sort of set up a literary blind date that night. And they hit it off.”
A month later, Rains opened the store in Bloomfield. Again, she had to fend off skeptics who predicted a permanent bookstore was doomed to fail.
Again, Rains ignored what seemed to be sound advice.
Again, her instincts proved to be right.
“We opened in November of 2012, so it led into the holiday season,” Rains says. “I didn't have many books, but for what we had, we did well. I think people were excited. ... There's a lot of young grad students, and students, who live here, and they were excited about it. And I think the community was excited about it.”
Perhaps the best decision Rains made was to welcome writers and poets for readings. In a little over two years, the East End Book Exchange has become a hub for the Pittsburgh literary community, hosting the Versify poetry series and book-release parties for Newman, Jeffrey Condran and others.
O'Nan, the highly regarded Pittsburgh-based novelist and writer, could have had the local release party for his new book anywhere in the city. But he chose the Exchange to host the book talk and signing for “West of Sunset,” which is drawing rave national reviews.
“Lesley's ahead of the wave,” says O'Nan, whose reading and signing is set for Feb. 7. “After the city lost so many of its bookstores, it took someone with real vision and courage to open one — not to mention taste. The readings she puts on are like salons, a chance for local writers to gather and celebrate not just the latest new release but the day-in, day-out job of writing. I wanted to do my Pittsburgh event there because of all the support she gives us.”
“It's been a surprise how the literary community has latched onto this place as their event space,” Rains says. “I think they got tired of hosting in coffeeshops and places where they felt like interlopers, or it wasn't a priority.”
Her embrace of writers and poets is not accidental. When she was looking at possible sites for the store, Rains made sure the design and floor plan of the building was open and suitable for readings. She made sure she knew about local writers and books.
By doing so, she not only helped her business, but gave the literary community a much-needed refuge.
“Think Paris in the 1920s, when Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company bookshop provided a welcoming, warm home for writers and readers and thinkers,” Jakiela says. “Lesley Rains is Pittsburgh's Sylvia Beach.”
Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.