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Store's closing a sad ending, but no mystery to booksellers

| Friday, Dec. 29, 2006, 12:00 p.m.

City Books has operated on East Carson Street since 1981 under the ownership of Edward Gelblum, a retired Duquesne University philosophy professor.

The stacks of books at Edward Gelblum's South Side bookshop stretch from floor to ceiling on two floors.

But few people are rushing into City Books, the store on East Carson Street he has owned since 1981.

"Walk-ins have died, even with Christmas," said Gelblum, 74, of Mt. Lebanon, a retired Duquesne University philosophy professor.

He doesn't expect a big jump in sales after the Barnes and Noble store on Smithfield Street, Downtown, closes its doors Saturday after 12 years in business.

"I don't think people read. It's very distressing. It bodes ill for our society down the road," said Gelblum, a transplanted New Yorker who prefers a typewriter over a laptop.

October 2006 marked the fourth month in a row that book sales fell below those in the same period of 2005, the American Booksellers Association said. Smaller booksellers such as Gelblum have turned to the Internet to help compete against chain stores. At least half of Gelblum's sales come from Internet orders.

"We could close and run by appointment or by chance," he said.

Mail order sales account for one-third of the business at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, said owner Richard Goldman. The store specializes in mystery novels.

"The Web has made a big difference. It gives us a broader reach," he said.

Goldman, 56, who used to work in the computer software business, recalls the days when the big chain bookstores came to Pittsburgh. Barnes and Noble has seven other stores in the region; Borders has 10.

"With each store that opened, we would have to fight harder to keep our sales up," he said. "They took most of our casual business. That's all but disappeared."

The number of independent booksellers in America has been declining over the past two decades, according to the American Booksellers Association.

The group has about 2,200 members, down from about 5,200 members 20 years ago.

Over the 51 years that he has been selling books in Oakland, Jay Dantry has served four generations of Pittsburghers.

"Grandparents, parents, their kids and their kids' kids," said Dantry, who views the closing of the Barnes and Noble store as sad news for the city.

"It's always sad to hear of a store closing. But I'm 78, nothing surprises me anymore," said Dantry, who owns Jay's Bookstall on Fifth Ave.

The closing of the Barnes and Noble store is a major blow to Downtown revitalization efforts, said Elsie Harper-Anderson, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Michigan.

"It's not as big a blow as when Lord & Taylor left, but a store like Barnes and Noble attracts a variety of different customers," said Harper-Anderson, who grew up in Mt. Washington.

Harper-Anderson said the city needs to build its retail base to compete with suburban malls. More important than a bookstore will be landing another large department store, she said.

Dantry, of Oakland, said he believes books today are too long and there are just too many of them. When he started in the business, about 80,000 titles a year were published. That's climbed to more than 230,000 titles now, he said.

Literary events -- book signings and readings -- have dropped off since the 9/11 attacks because people are afraid to fly, Dantry said.

Gelblum said shops like his are a dying breed. The upstairs reading area is empty. The espresso bar he installed a few years ago to attract a younger crowd sits idle.

"We even had a harpsichord," he said.

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