Submitted by Karen Beer
In March, Allegheny West residents and bibliophiles from around the city welcomed the reopening of City Books at 908 Galveston Avenue. Owner Arlan Hess, a former literature and creative writing professor at Washington & Jefferson College, had visited City Books’ Southside location many times over the years. By late 2012, Arlan felt restless teaching, and started looking for other options. She’d heard that then-owner Ed Gelblum was planning to retire, and in the winter of 2014–2015, Arlan spent time in the store learning the business. The sale of the inventory was finalized in April 2015, and Arlan set out to find the perfect spot for the store. She landed right here in Allegheny West. “This area of the Northside has a very different feel because it combines residential and commercial in such close proximity that it feels more like Brooklyn than Pittsburgh,” says Arlan. “Like many city neighborhoods lately, it’s being rediscovered – and discovery is an important characteristic of used bookstores. Allegheny West is both a destination location and a walkable neighborhood.”
So far, she’s thrilled with the location. “My experience in Allegheny West has been better than I ever could have hoped for,” Arlan affirms. “The neighborhood has welcomed us with open arms and I will be forever grateful for that.” Coming from an academic background, Arlan had reservations about the business aspect, but she is glad that she hasn’t had to struggle to make herself known. “Being welcome in the community has gone a long way in assuaging my fears about making such a drastic career change.”
City Books shoppers can expect a mix of old-world charm and modern customer service. “I wanted to keep as much of the soul of the original store as possible, while making it more responsive in terms of customer service, special orders, and new & independent titles,” Arlan says. Curation of the inventory is important in such a small space. Arlan tries to keep as many of her favorite authors as possible, though through frequent recommendations, it can be hard to keep works from Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, William Trevor, Colm Tobin and John Irving on the shelves. With a graduate degree in poetry, Arlan gravitates towards poets, including Billy Collins, Frank O’Hara, Elizabeth Bishop and Marie Howe. She realizes that her tastes aren’t necessarily what everyone wants to read, though, so she aims for a good mix of English language writers, some literature in translation, some foreign language titles, and an extensive selection of nonfiction. “I’d like to think that readers will be surprised at how many really good books we have on the shelves for being as small as we are.”
Look for upcoming events in the store, such as book signings, poetry readings, lectures and staged readings of plays. Arlan also hopes to welcome book clubs into the space. She sells some gift items now, and intends to expand her collection of locally made gifts. She is always looking for books, and will offer store credit for trade-ins, based on the age, condition and resale value of the title. Keep an eye out for event updates on the AWCC e-Newsletter, and in the meantime, head over to City Books to get a head start on your summer reading.