Best Indie Bookstores in Pittsburgh

The economy and highly accessible digital media has not been kind to brick-and-mortar book shops. But several independently owned bookstores have managed to make names for themselves.

photos by lauralei kraski


For the lovers of the “old-book smell,” for the hardcover collectors, for the bookworms who tell themselves every night “Just one more page” until, whoops, it’s 4 a.m., for the bookaholics on a tight budget and for the “read-venturers” who Indiana Jones their way through neighborhoods in search of the next life-changing book, for them (for us) — the independent bookstore is a treasure trove.

And Pittsburgh has a solid collection.

Bookstores in the last decade were largely considered “Dead men walking” — and not in the cool, zombie way. Bookstores during the recent recession took a beating. With the rise of highly accessible digital media, including tablets, Kindles and smartphones, stragglers in the herd were weeded out. But independently owned bookstores have Lazarused their way back to the front page and have made names for themselves within their communities.

Here are three local, indie bookstores worth visiting.

photos by lauralei kraski

1. Amazing Books

Short and sweet, Amazing Books’s name delivers what it promises.

With two locations, one Downtown and one in Squirrel Hill, this local bookstore has done well to put itself on the map while also staying true to its corner-bookstore roots.

For cash or in-store credit, they buy used books, records, and even textbooks. For those who have lived in Pittsburgh a while, this is not to be confused with Awesome Books. Awesome books turned into Amazing Books in 2013 with new ownership when Eric Ackland turned the page on the store.

“Pittsburgh is a great, literate town. There are lots of readers here. We’re deeply appreciative of the support we’ve had from the community and from fellow booksellers,” says Ackland.

When it comes to dedicated ownership, Amazing Books has it. Upon arriving at the Squirrel Hill location, Ackland took the time to have a long chat with me about the store and about some of the books it carries. I even got my own private poetry reading as he showed me a copy of Secret Society of Dog by local poet Jimmy Cvetic. So if you are looking for the bookstore where you can have a conversation with the management and get to know them, Amazing Books may be your spot.

For readers interested in Judaism, Amazing Books has an extensive collection of books covering the subject. And along those lines, one thing to pay attention to is that the store observes Jewish holidays and the Sabbath, which means closing time comes at sunset on Fridays; the store remains closed all day on Saturdays.

In a perk for vegans and coffee-lovers, the Oakland location will also share a coffee shop in the coming months. It will be the only all-vegan eatery in Oakland, with vegan hot chocolate included.

929 Liberty Ave., Downtown, 2030 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill, 116 Meyran Ave., []

2. East End Book Exchange

For the reader who is inclined to join book clubs and go to public readings, Bloomfield’s East End Book Exchange may be for you. This friendly, neighborhood bookstore knows how to mix a reader’s paradise with social fun — not always easy for the introverted bookworm.

Owner Lesley Rains shared her optimism with me regarding the return of the local bookstore. “We’re seeing a return, and the response has been wonderful. Pittsburghers tend to support small and local businesses, and people have really rallied around us,” she says. “But I don’t romanticize the bookstore. It takes hard work.”

So what does it take to keep a local bookstore booming? “I try really hard to make it a space and place where people want to go, where people want to sit and relax in a warm and cozy environment. We also consistently do events like weekly readings,” she said.

As the name suggests, the East End Book Exchange buys used books in exchange for store credit. But don’t try getting rid of the “I-don’t-know-how-I-got-this” copy of Twilight which you “accidentally” spilled an entire cup of coffee on and left out in the rain for three days. To maintain quality, the store refers to “gently-used” only, because no one wants a moldy copy of Twilight.

The store also has a consignment program for local writers, who could be on the shelves next to Jason Baldinger, Jan Beatty and Guy Hogan.

And for family shopping days in Bloomfield, there’s a kids corner in the back with a chalkboard, a table with chairs, and children’s books to entertain minds of all ages.

4754 Liberty Ave, Bloomfield; 412-224-2847, []

3. Caliban Books

If you’re into rare books, then Caliban Books is the place for you. As you peruse the rustic, antiquarian stacks, the temptation to check for that “old-book smell” is pretty much constant. Caliban Books buys, sells, and appraises books, and owner John Schulman knows his stuff when it comes to appraisals. He isn’t often in the shop because he is on the road looking for books, going to auctions, and appraising for PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, but the Caliban neighborhood and fellow bookstore community is important to him. “As a citizen of Pittsburgh, I just want to do my part to keep the city alive, because I wouldn’t want to live in a city where there weren’t independent bookstores,” Schulman says.

For book collectors with a taste for history, the store releases Best of the Fortnight series revealing historic, authentic finds that are available to purchase. There also is a selection of indie books by local authors.

In store, there’s a haul of more than 40,000 books. If that’s not enough for you, a warehouse — open by request — contains more than 150,000 books.

For John Schulman and Caliban Books, Pittsburgh is unique compared to other cities. “A community of bookstores and owners that get along and support each other is not to be found in many places, but here we support friendliness. Cities like LA, New York, have embraced a different reading culture, but here — it’s Pittsburgh, it’s different. People talk to each other in bookstores. People go on Saturdays or after work.” And to all those who may think bookstores are dying: “We’re not. People like reading and they like books. So we are going to keep going on.”

410 South Craig Street, Oakland; Phone Number: 412/681-9111, []

These independent bookstores, which cater to specific niches, area also worth a visit.

Penguin Bookshop
For the Sewickley reader with a taste for history
417 Beaver Street 15143, 412-741-3838, []

The Copacetic Comics Company
For the graphic novel and comic-book reader.
3138 Dobson Street Third Floor 15219, 412- 251-5451, []

Rickert & Beagle Books
For the science-fiction, horror and fantasy reader.
3233 West Liberty Ave., Dormont, 15216, 412-344-7444, []

Spaces Corners
For the visual reader and photo-artist.
1721 Lowrie Street 15212, []

Categories: Best of the ‘Burgh