Monday, January 31, 2011

Eljay’s Used Books To Leave Pittsburgh City Limits

When my partner and I made a scouting trip to Pittsburgh in the summer of 2005, the city’s bookstores told us stories that the streets could not. In that sweltering August, most live bodies were on vacation or hidden inside their air-conditioned homes and apartments, but Pittsburgh’s bookstores gave us clues as to who lived here and whether we wanted them to be our neighbors.

Eljay’s Used Books stood out to me on that visit as a bookstore that shared my taste in 20th century fiction, lit anthologies, literary journals, psychology titles, and even mass market classics; and I appreciated their hefty counter-culture selection. As a space the store had an awesome vibe, both funky and lived-in, inviting and with enough nooks and crannies for moments of solitude. A display window proudly featured an Emma Goldman poster, one front wall was covered in colorful paintings and other bold graphics, and further inside were wide aisles of wooden shelves, and a few comfortable reading chairs tucked in front of the fiction section. Eljay’s looked
and felt like a bookstore where both owners and customers loved to spend time--not due merely to a much-cited “love of reading,” but also a love of publishing history and book culture, a love of eclectic book spaces, a love of the first amendment, and a love of lingering in secondhand bookshops. I knew that if Pittsburgh could sustain and embrace a bookstore like this one, it was a city I could live in.

On the Move

On January 26, 2011, Eljay’s Used Books sent out an email to their customer list announcing their impending move from Pittsburgh’s East Carson Street to the South Hills suburb of Dormont. The new store is expected to open on West Liberty Avenue on March 1st. This will come, certainly, as a disappointment to neighborhood (and other city-limits) customers; Eljay’s has been in the same locale since late 1997. But co-owner Frank Oreto cites a few factors for the move. “Daytime foot traffic on Carson Street has been on the decline for many years now--there aren’t as many art galleries or antique stores on this strip as there used to be. Bar and restaurant traffic are up, which is fine for the South Side. But I don’t want to work late nights.” Though Oreto and his family used to live on the top floor of the building that houses the bookstore, he now lives in Dormont, about a five-minute walk from the future store. His business partner, Louise Richardson, also lives in the South Hills area. Add the cheaper rent in Dormont and the fact that many of Eljay’s shoppers already seek out the store from other neighborhoods, and the move starts to make even more sense.

Eljay’s will have about one and a half times the space in the new Dormont location, with a trolley stop a short walk away, nearby restaurants and other shops generating foot traffic, and ample parking across the street. A quick glance at recent census data shows that the Dormont zip code has more than twice the population of the South Side area. But are they book shoppers? Oreto hopes so. “Dormont is where hipsters go to have children,” he quips. “People I used to hang out with on the South Side back in the day….now they’re in Dormont hanging out with a six year old.” Even so, he seems to retain a seasoned bookseller’s attitude that in this business, it’s always a grand experiment. “I could be running a butcher shop in a year—who knows? At least I like meat.”

The South Side’s Carson Street once existed as a long stretch of watering holes for the J & L Steel mill workers (indeed, bars and nightclubs still comprise much of the street’s business). But in its post-steel decades, the street has also been home to some of the city’s most beloved and unique bookstores. River Run Books was a second-floor used bookstore down the street from Eljay’s, but it left town in the mid-90s. Bookseller Bob Ziller recalls two Carson Street storefronts: a great feminist bookstore called the Gertrude Stein Bookstore (Stein was born, after all, on Pittsburgh’s North Side) that was around since at least the mid 80s and closed “probably in the early 90s,” and a radical bookstore called The Pathfinder. St. Elmo’s Books and Music (just across from the Birmingham Bridge) sold new books and was known for its strengths in philosophy, religion and spirituality, cultural studies, queer studies, and gay erotica. They closed in early 2002 after sixteen years in business. More recently, Joseph-Beth Booksellers closed their Pittsburgh location on East Carson at the end of November 2010 (after six years).

Ziller, who used to work at River Run and now co-owns Awesome Books in the neighborhood of Garfield, remembers a time when the South Side literary scene was dense enough that Carson Street held an annual “Poetry Crawl.” Pittsburgh today has an abundance of reading series, but most now take place across a river from here--in neighborhoods like Garfield, Lawrenceville, Oakland, and the North Side.

So when Eljay’s leaves, what’s left on Carson? City Books, a used and rare bookstore often voted Pittsburgh’s best over its three decades, stands a few blocks away from Eljay’s current location. City Books is adored by its faithful customers, and has hosted numerous gatherings and events: It was home of the Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange for many years, and a St John’s University alumni group still meets at the store once a week to discuss Great Books. Bradley’s Books in Station Square (an urban mall a good bit west of the main Carson Street drag) specializes in best-sellers and some remainders as well as calendars, cards, and other gift items. Unless you're in the market for titles by L. Ron Hubbard, that’s it for self-described bookstores--but the Goodwill across the street from the former Joseph-Beth location is known for having a decent-sized book section. (In fact, it used to have its own store next door, Bookends on Carson.) I myself cruise the place with some frequency looking for good reads, in addition to scouting for first editions. The last time I scouted here I was excited to find a signed memoir by Catherine Texier, former co-editor of New York litmag Between C & D.

Sifting through three-dollar books for signed first editions has its thrills for sure. But the cavernous warehouse of Goodwill is no match for the warm wooden aisles of Eljay’s. March 1st will be a sad day on Carson Street; until then, 20% off the memories while they last.


Frank said...

Great post, and great photos. I linked it to Eljay's Facebook page. Do you mind If I steal some of the photos?
Frank Oreto

Unknown said...

Sad to see you leave the Southside and wish you the best of luck in Dormont. Wonderful article Karen. Thanks for all of your support

Laura Jean @ Awesome Books

Unknown said...

Pages,blw'n in-wind: retired prof.ED, City books hey day was 70's..w/ bohemian cafe on 2nd floor,up spiral stairs/,now long closed. St Elmos will be another bar. DJ HUber