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We caught up with Arlen from City Books in the Northside and asked her some questions about her bustling book store.
Tell me about City Books. How did you get started?
It’s Pittsburgh oldest used book store! It was established in the Southside in 1987, but we moved to the Northside 3 years ago. I taught literature and creative writing at Washington and Jefferson for 17 years before I bought the bookstore in 2015. It’s a general bookstore; it always was a general bookstore, but the former owner was a retired philosophy professor at Duquesne. So it was really philosophy and religion bookstore. He didn’t have a children’s section at all, but now I have some kids books and some travel books as well. Those additions are just to make it a bit more modern.
What do you like about being the Northside?
It’s a great community. I am so glad to have moved to the Northside. There’s great walk-by traffic! And because City Books is a legend in Pittsburgh, it has remained as a destination location. When I came here 3 years ago, there were a lot of lunch-time walk-by traffic here. So during the week, business is a bit slower, but there’s a lot of walk-by traffic. Weekends we get a lot of destination traffic. People are visiting Pittsburgh and we are within walking distance of the Aviary, the Mattress Factory and Randyland. We get a lot of tourism. People come out to those locations and then wonder “what else is around here? Let’s see if there’s good old bookstore.” Then they google “used bookstore” and they see I’m less than a 10-minute walk away, and walk over here.
Do you deal in rare books at all?
I do have what I would call collectable books. They are not investment quality 1st editions, but I have sold some $300 or $400 books here. However, there aren’t a lot of those here anymore that are in really good shape that would interest the demographic I’m targeting.
So, the kind of collectible books that I have are books that are for a person, like maybe your grandmother who was a huge Hemingway fan, and you want to buy a nice solid mid-20th century collectible for them. They are not super rare, but you are going to feel like you are giving something nice to them. And they will think that they are getting something nice, but they’re not going to feel bad leaving it out on the coffee table.
What about City Books makes you the most proud?
It’s an active community bookstore. And I do special orders. I have also been building relationships with used bookstores all around the world.
What’s a fun fact about yourself?
I can write forwards and backwards!
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