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Bookstore earns national acclaim, remains local comfort zone

January 29, 2019

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Tony Weisser walked into Classic Lines bookstore on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill late morning Friday with a friend, and his face registered the kind of look that you wish came with words.

So you ask: Did he know that Classic Lines was named among five finalists for bookstore of the year by Publishers Weekly the day before?

“It’s obvious why,” he said quickly, acknowledging he had never been there before. “I’m not much of a reader, but right when I came in here it made me want to pick up a book and read it.”

Owner Dan Iddings sat, head bowed over laptop, in one of two easy chairs in the middle of the store as people browsed. He was making plans for in-store events to be held during his upcoming business trip, but he was also reading the comings and goings.

“It’s a little heavier than usual,” he said of the foot traffic, “but this is pretty normal. On any given day, based on transactions, about half the people are new.”

The news that broke on Thursday attracted curious shoppers on Friday and also brought out the regulars who use words like “grateful,” ″love” and “community” when they talk about this 1,600-square-foot store that opened in 2014. It had its best year in 2018, finally reaching the goal ratio of gross sales to rent. The latter should be 10 percent, and it was, after years at 12 percent to 15 percent, Iddings said.

“We are now where I think it’s sustainable,” he said.

“Someone once told me not to make my hobby into a business.” He chuckled. “But it’s so much fun.”

As to what got Publishers Weekly’s attention, Jim Milliot, a Publishers Weekly spokesman, said the criteria include innovation, service to community and staying power.

Iddings said he suspects the store gained recognition for having been a haven of sorts after the Oct. 27 shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue, in which 11 people were killed. A decided uptick of people sought the comfort-among-strangers feeling that a small bookstore offers.

The store was nominated by someone in the industry, said Milliot, adding that Classic Lines does get a nod “for how they came to the community’s aid during the Tree of Life shootings. Not that long ago in the St. Louis suburbs, Left Bank Books stepped up, and we gave them a special mention. People had gone there (after the 2014 shootings in Ferguson, Mo.), and the bookstore displayed books about social justice.”

The other nominees for 2019 Bookstore of the Year are A Likely Story in Sykesville, Md.; hello hello books in Rockland, Maine; Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Watermark Books & Cafe in Wichita, Kan.

Milliot said that, in the 25 years Publishers Weekly has made the award, the nominees have been popular, well-known bookstores in large cities, “over and over again. With independents making a resurgence, we thought it was time to look at some that haven’t gotten national attention.”

An internal committee will vet the nominees after reviewing paperwork back from the bookstores. The award will be presented at BookExpo in May in New York City.

Independent bookstores have made a rebound in the years since the big-box booksellers began disappearing from the landscape. Pittsburgh and its suburbs now count about a dozen indies. The American Booksellers Association reported this month that 97 indie stores opened around the country in 2018, compared with 75 in 2017.

Classic Lines has an aisle down the middle, all the way back to the children’s section. On one side, wall shelves and perpendicular shelves create niches for fiction, starting alphabetically near the door and ending under the checkout counter. Shelves line the opposite wall, and books fill tables and other display spaces around two easy chairs. You can think you’ve browsed all the books in the store when you discover a shelf you hadn’t seen.

Ellie and Nigel Bolland are regulars with a fairly easy walk from their home.

“We moved to Pittsburgh about 10 years ago when there was a Borders” in Squirrel Hill, Nigel Bolland said. “It vanished, but this is better.”

They discovered it “the day after it opened,” Ellie Bolland said. “What I love is coming in and being able to browse such an interesting and intelligent variety of books. I love finding what I came for and being surprised to find what I didn’t know about. We’re grateful for it.”

“There’s a lot of good literature, not the same old stuff you see in airports,” said Fredrick Ian, the friend who introduced Weisser to the store. “And there’s a community here. People talk to you.”

“The big places destroyed that,” Weisser said. “When I was a kid, I would go to Melia’s Market (to pick up groceries) for my pap-pap. It was a little market, and the owner knew me. He knew everyone. At his funeral, everyone in Crafton was there.”

He now lives in Shaler but said “community is why I love Squirrel Hill.”

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Online:

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com