Day 14: Awesome Books

If you find yourself in the Bloomfield/Garfield/Friendship section of Penn Avenue, you will no doubt see this sign looming outside a small shop next to SPAK BROS. PizzaIf you have not seen the sign, you can’t miss the spot where this little artist owned bookstore, Awesome Books, is hiding. Nestled between two of Penn Avenue’s brightest attractions this new little gem is not to be missed. With scads and scads of used books on site, and a thousand more in storage, Awesome Books is everything that the modern book industry is missing.

As I have said before, I work for Borders, and I just about died when I got the job, I was so excited. I remember when I interviewed, the manager that I met with told me the pay–$6.25/hour to start, as a cashier, and I was crushed. I wasn’t going to leave a $16+/hour job as a waitress to work for $6/ hour as a cashier. I had a degree! I had retail experience! I was a manager damn it! (Lucky for me I put that out there and got hired at a bit higher of a rate, as a supervisor.) But I really wanted to work in a bookstore. Something she said to me when she told me my wage has stuck with me for all of these years and although I still find it as pretentious now as I did that day, it still rings true–to some extent. She said to me, “People don’t work here for the money; they work here because they love books.” And that is true. The pay sucks, the benefits suck, and often your discount sucks, BUT the people who work there love books.

Now I am sure you have all seen the news spewing the terror that is besetting Borders Inc. It often makes me sad to think that the company is in such dire straights and there is the looming risk of closure. But in toady’s reader market, small business is where the money is. More often than not our store is treated more like a restaurant, a library, a school, a concert hall, and a phone booth than it is a bookstore. People don’t buy any more. Thousands of titles sit on the shelves to be skimmed over, spilled on, spines broken, and pages folded never to be purchased because online venues can sell it to them cheaper or they can downloaded it for practically free. Places like Borders are used by the masses to get out of the house for the night and get a cup of coffee for $1.85.

However, since the money problems really started to show at Borders, I have been telling my co-workers that their saving grace is going to be stock reduction and specialization. Focus on what is really selling in your area, reduce the quantities of stock that is not selling, and get rid of the music, movies, and cafe. Do what you are there to do–sell books. And that, my friends is what Awesome Books is doing.

You can see Gillian, the attendant that helped me today, working on a mosaic in the back.

When you walk into Awesome Books it feels like you are walking into someone’s home library. You can smell the paper, and the cloth, and the dust, and the wood of the floors, not burnt coffee and Chlorox. It is quiet, like a bookshop should be and warm. The homeyness is amplified by the cats  playing in the corner and under your feet, and the single employee sitting on the couch working on some art project or another.

The selection is small, but comprehensive, and everything is used. They have new and old titles alike in everything from falling apart to like new condition. And like any corporate books store out there, they can get you anything you want, if you are willing to wait a bit. Quick story. A few weeks back I went in with a list of books I needed for my book club and began to hit the shelves. They had none of them, and I was surprised, because many of them were popular or classic titles. That day Laura Jean McLaughlin, one of the owners, was working, and I began to ask her about some of the titles. She was so kind. She took down the titles and authors that I was looking for and took my number and told me she would give me a call if any of them came in. I wrote it off as never going to happen and began looking elsewhere for the titles. Wouldn’t you know it, just under a week later, she called me back to tell me she had two of them in stock! I couldn’t get it from Amazon that fast! And what struck me was that she remembered and actually called back. In a big corporate bookstore, even with computers reminding us everyday of who needs a phone call, we are lucky if we can remember to email. And here this woman was offering me personal service for a used book, from a list she had written down on some scrap of paper.

This is what is missing from chain stores, and it is something that they will never have…heart. The employees have it, but the store never will, because there are a thousand clones of it all around the world. And with the pressures of big business, and contracted coffee shops, and political correctness, and looming foreclosures, all the book loving people in the country could work in your storefront and you won’t have the warmth you feel at a small privately owned shop.This is where the business needs to move to, they need to de-evolve. Borders, you have taken on too much, and you need to step down. Let go of what is not selling and stick to what you are good at–selling BOOKS.

Here is a quick tour of Awesome Books, on Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh:

Window seat one,

Windows seat two. Oh, and that is poetry hiding on that little bookshelf.

Fiction, Bios and new arrivals (the rolling cart and top shelf boxes down the center aisle)

Art, Children's , Poli-Sci and others...

Psychology and Sociology there on the right and that little shelf had VERY OLD books on it along with music titles and an portrait of Walt Whitman on the wall.

Ms. McLaughlin's studio in the back

The cats.

I want to say I am not completely knocking where I work…I really do love that place, but in this day and age, when so many people are clinging to their e-books, those of us who need the touch, the taste, the smell, the heart of a real, live book–and it truly is a need–we need a place like Awesome Books. We crave a place where our friends, enemies, lovers, and muses can live, and thrive and have their adventures in a place that is just for them. No music, no movies, no download kiosks and no coffee shops. If you want coffee, buy a book at Awesome Books. You get a free cup from Oh Yeah! Ice Cream with every purchase.

Go mooch off them for a place to hang out.

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