7 independent Pittsburgh bookstores that families will love
Photo above used by permission from Spark Books.
Encouraging news for lovers of Pittsburgh bookstores: Although things weren’t looking good for local booksellers back when big chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble (and that fledgling startup Amazon) began dominating the scene in the 1990s, our local book-selling community looks to be thriving once again. Here is a short list of a few favorites which offer a strong focus on younger readers and their families.
These shops all share a commitment to inclusivity, representation and serving underrepresented and marginalized communities. As Spark Books owner Adriene Rister says, “I want to make sure there is a book for every child and young person on my shelf.”
From big (Alphabet City) to small (The Tiny Bookstore), and from brand new (Stories Like Me) to long-established (Busy Times Bookstore), these Pittsburgh bookstores represent their owners’ passion for books and reading. Each one is a unique jewel with many brilliant facets to explore.
I think Lea Bickerton, co-owner of The Tiny Bookstore, speaks for all of them when she says this: “Every young reader should experience a book that they love — a book that they want their grown-up to read to them five times a day every single day.”
40 W. North Avenue, 412-435-1110, firstname.lastname@example.org
City of Asylum is a North Side institution. The non-profit organization was co-founded by Diane Samuels and Henry Reese in 2004 with the mission to build “a just community by protecting and celebrating freedom of creative expression.” CoA hosts the Exiled Writer and Artist Residency Program and serves as a venue for countless literary, music and arts events. In the fall of 2016, Alphabet City bookstore was opened with a concentration on books in translation.
“Our store, with its focus on translated and underrepresented authors, gives families an alternative to the mainstream commercial titles found in big box and online stores,” says children’s book buyer Jennifer Kraar.
A librarian for many years, Kraar enthuses: “Children’s books are magical — they create communities of readers more than adult books.” Alphabet City stocks a wide selection of picture books, middle-grade novels and graphic novels, as well as a generous selection of translated books for younger readers. “The biggest criteria is that the story is child-centered and well told,” says Kraar.
Alphabet City hosts a middle-grade book group as well as in-person events featuring guest authors.
Busy Times Bookstore
826 Pittsburgh Street (Springdale), 724-274-9699
Martina Mock worked for many years as a special education teacher. When she found herself looking for a change in career, she said to herself, “I know books and kids.” In 1991, she opened Busy Times Bookstore in Springdale.
As shoppers peruse this well-worn and comfortable little PIttsburgh bookstore, Mock’s experience as a teacher quickly makes itself known. The entire back wall of the shop is taken over by displays of workbooks and flash cards. Prior to the pandemic, Mock provided tutoring services here. While there are no plans to start that up again, her large stock of educational materials is a wonderful resource for students and parents alike.
Busy Times offers a selection of titles that runs the gamut from picture books and middle-grade novels to classic literature. There is also a nice selection of non-fiction books for young readers.
When it comes to her selection process, Mock says she is pretty broadminded: “I always ask the children, ‘Have you read any good books lately?'”
“Reading is one of those things that opens you up so much,” Mock says. “When you read, you get a taste of someone else’s way of living.”
Due to the pandemic, Busy Times has been keeping irregular hours. Customers are encouraged to call ahead before arriving.
14 Brilliant Avenue, 412-781-1987, email@example.com
Originally from Maine, Adriene Rister met her husband in Pittsburgh where she received her Master’s of Public Health from the University of Pittsburgh. Rister and her family moved back to Pittsburgh 13 years ago. In search of kid-friendly spaces, she decided to open one herself. “From the beginning, I wanted a bookstore,” she explains.
“Opening a bookstore allowed me to create a space where I could combine so many of my loves,” Rister says. “My experiences from being a nurse, combined with my MPH, combined with my personal experience as a mother and caretaker have all shaped how Spark has come together: an outlet for me to care for my community, with early literacy at its heart.”
Spark Books, located in Aspinwall, is small but packed with a wide variety of books, as well as puzzles, stickers, paints, and chalk. Carefully considered sections line the right-hand wall. Among them: “New Baby,” “Potty Training,” “Feelings”, and “Death & Aging.” There are also sections on bugs, unicorns, mermaids and princesses.
“Books are unique and special, in that we are given the great privilege to experience someone else’s life through story. Books create a safe place to experience the world for kids before they actually go through it themselves. They can process it and talk about it with their grown-ups and peers,” Rister says. “Books also reflect and validate our own experiences. Both of these are imperative for young folks to grow empathy and to feel seen—to normalize your experience, what you are feeling, and that you are not alone.”
Prior to the pandemic, Spark hosted a wide assortment of events. Rister is beginning to bring some of these popular activities back. Storytime is hosted outside in front of the shop as weather permits and she tells Kidsburgh there are “some fun things in the works for the fall/winter holiday season.”
4381 Murray Avenue, 412-229-7697, firstname.lastname@example.org
“Children’s books are exciting to me, because it’s where we have a wonderful opportunity to share stories that build empathy and make kinder humans!” says Stories Like Me shop owner Helen Campbell. The eagerly awaited brick-and-mortar shop will open in mid-October of this year. Currently, Campbell is selling books via the Stories Like Me website and at pop-ups around the city.
Campbell’s career has seen her wearing many different hats. A certified project manager for 15 years, she has also worked in the film and television industry, as well as a stint at a library book supplier.
“Our mission is that every child and family can see themselves in stories,” says Campbell. “So we intentionally curate the books that we carry to reflect the beautiful diversity of our kids, families, and experiences.”
In that spirit, Stories Like Me offers collections of books focused on Latinx, disability and neurodiversity, Asian and Pacific Islander, LGBTQIAP+ and Black Lives Matter titles.
Once the brick-and-mortar storefront is up and running, Campbell plans to offer story time events in English and Spanish. She also hopes “to provide evening events for parents and carers, for example, they might include how to talk about a disability or setting yourself up for success with a playdate with someone who is neurodiverse.”
1130 Perry Highway (Pines Plaza), 412-585-2651 (you can text this number)
“It was always my dream to open a bookstore, but it was originally my retirement plan,” says Lea Bickerton.
She co-owns The Tiny Bookstore, located in North Hills, with her husband Bill. Both Lea and Bill are criminal defense attorneys who originally planned on using the Pines Plaza space for their offices. Things changed along the way and now the 300-square-foot storefront is home to the smallest bookshop in town.
“My strategy for picking the children’s books we carry is pretty straightforward,” says Bickerton. “I try to have books that are fun, educational or build character. Which basically means that, if it looks cool, I’ll carry it.”
The Tiny Bookstore opened in 2019, but with the coming of 2020 a host of new and unexpected problems arose. “With the pandemic, we were closed to in-store shopping until August of 2022,” says Bickerton. “We had to pivot to doing shopping and store events online, which was a pretty significant shift. Since our store is very small and the ventilation system is limited, we’re operating under a safety protocol that adjusts to the rate of community transmission. We’re doing our best to create a safe and inclusive environment for as much of the community as possible, and we’re very grateful that our community understands that and has been supporting us in those efforts.”
And what about kid-focused events? “Before the pandemic, we had regular story times in the store. We won’t be bringing those back until we have a better idea of how we can do story times safely. We do virtual story times seasonally and are planning to bring those back for the holiday season,” Lea says. “We offer tutoring for reading skills and comprehension along with worksheets and printables for at-home learning.”
4754 Liberty Avenue, 412-224-2847, email@example.com
White Whale Bookstore, nestled in the heart of the Bloomfield business district, is a hub for the Pittsburgh literary community.
Adlai and Jill Yeomans purchased the shop, formerly the East End Book Exchange, in 2016. They quickly rechristened it the White Whale. “I was a bookseller in college in Ann Arbor, but prior to opening White Whale, Adlai and I both worked (and met) in publishing in New York,” says Jill Yeomans. “I worked in editorial at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, so while our shop is ‘general interest’ with books on many topics, I felt strongly about having a large and well-stocked children’s section, and I do all of the kids’ book buying.”
A cursory glance at the shop’s jam-packed event calendar reveals a wide range of in-store and virtual happenings featuring poetry readings, writing workshops, author visits and book clubs. These include a commitment to child-centered events, such as recent appearances by children’s book authors Sharon Flake, Jonathan Auxier and Brittany J. Thurman.
“We had a long-running story time that has been on hiatus since the pandemic,” Yeomans says. “But we have staff that are passionate about heading up a new version, so we do anticipate bringing that back soon. We also love to pair up with librarians and PTAs for school visits, book fairs and in-store fundraisers.”
No longer being the new kids on the block has its advantages, she says: “Now that we’ve been around for a bit, it’s also extremely rewarding to see little kids coming in with their parents for years, and then beginning to develop their own tastes and ask for book suggestions themselves. I love watching a reader bloom!”
BONUS: Though it doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar location, another great local book resource for families is Young Dreamers Bookstore.
This mobile book startup was founded earlier this year with young children and their families in mind. The shop’s inspiring children’s books are chosen to “meet kids at their dreams,” with a focus on inclusion: Young Dreamers books center on protagonists of African descent and many are written by culturally diverse writers.
Upcoming events include a stop at Everyday Cafe in Homewood on Saturday, Oct. 8, 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. Get details on Young Dreamers’ events page.