About This Blog

Don't get me wrong. It's not that I'm not on board with the whole ebook thing. I enjoy books in all their formats. But there is nothing quite like a bookstore with its neatly arranged shelves of books and artfully created displays of new arrivals, best sellers, and suggested reading. I especially enjoy discovering small, independent bookstores and have made it my mission to visit and report back on as many of these gems as I can. That is my focus, but there is really nothing that is off limits as long as it is about books or reading. Hope you enjoy my blog and come back often.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

No Skates For This Penguin

Penguin Bookshop
420 Beaver Street
Sewickley, PA 15143
412-741-3838

I recently had the great pleasure of meeting one of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but this Penguin doesn't wear skates. No, hockey fans, I'm not referring to a hockey player. This Penguin is a bookstore, Penguin Bookshop, a wonderful bookstore located in the delightful Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley.

Friends and long-time readers may recall that once a year my family attends the Pyrotechnics Guild International annual convention where we enjoy a week-long extravaganza of booms, blasts, and pyrotechnic artistry. This year's convention was held in Butler County, Pennsylvania, about an hour north of Pittsburgh. It goes without saying that I would seek an area bookstore to visit, and Penguin Bookshop fit the bill nicely. So on a sunny afternoon, I set out on rolling, winding Pennsylvania roads in search of Sewickley. Not accustomed to driving in rural Pennsylvania where street signs are at a premium and traversing the twists, turns, and hills feels somewhat akin to riding a roller coaster, I found myself lost before long. Undaunted even after losing about half an hour trying to find my way, I pulled over, searched the dark recesses of my vehicle, and luckily found my GPS. I have the utmost appreciation for the inventor of this remarkable device without which I likely would have given up. As I drove on through the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside, I grumbled to myself, "This better be worth it."


Susan holds one of the many Penguin Bookshop penguins.
Situated along the Ohio River about 12 miles northwest of Pittsburgh proper, Sewickley gained a new fan in me from the moment I drove into the charming town. Originally settled in the 1700's, this suburb came into its own in the following century when the arrival of the Ohio and Pennsylvania Railroad made the commute to Pittsburgh convenient. Steel barons and other wealthy businessmen built mansions in Sewickley, ironically, to escape the pollution and congestion of the city. Many of those mansions still stand today, lending a gracious, historic presence to the area.

Penguin Bookshop has quite a history of its own. In business in various locations for over 80 years, the store has inhabited its current space for the past five years. This new location is literally brand new, the original building having been leveled and completely rebuilt as a green building. As a matter of fact, Penguin Bookshop has the distinction of being the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified bookshop in the country.

You may be thinking, as I did, that Penguin Bookshop is owned by a hockey fan who named the store after the Pittsburgh team. But like me, you would be wrong in that assumption. The two Sewickley socialites who originally opened the store named it after their favorite book, Penguin Island. This and many other details about the shop were related to me by two helpful and friendly staff members.

Upon first entering the shop, I was warmly greeted by Susan, who immediately offered her assistance. She told me about the town and the store and then suggested that I might also like to speak with Tess, the manager of the children's section on the second floor. As I headed upstairs, I couldn't help but feel that although the building is very modern and new, it nevertheless captures the stately old feel of the town that surrounds it. The staircase, for example, with its classic wood banister would have been right at home in one of those old mansions as would the fireplaces with their heavy oak mantels. That's right, I said fireplaces. This shop boasts two fireplaces, one on each floor.

Tess and Thomas
Upstairs in the children's section, which takes up most of the second floor, I came upon Tess who was engaged in conversation with a high school student named Thomas, an avid reader who helps out at Penguin Bookshop during the summer. I introduced myself to these two fellow bibliomaniacs, and a delightful conversation about books ensued. I was especially pleased to learn that Thomas is a great fan of one of my favorite authors, Gary Schmidt. (See earlier post.) It is always a joy to talk with others who share a love for books and reading.

Managing the children's area of the shop is an obvious fit for Tess, who worked previously with an early literacy agency called Beginning With Books. She currently teaches children's literature at the University of Pittsburgh and has been with Penguin for about three years. I enjoyed talking with Tess about children's books and authors as well as the details of Penguin Bookshop. She was happy to show me around and answer my questions.

The second floor of the store is a great place for extra activities with many of the bookshelves on casters so the space can be easily rearranged for events. Tess mentioned that there are several book clubs especially for kids, and the store sponsors an adult book club as well. Other book clubs take advantage of the congenial space to meet, plus Penguin offers a 20 percent discount on book club titles to any club that registers with the store.

Sir Penguin guards the children's area.
As you might expect, the cheery space, adorned with artwork by local artists, is also punctuated with stuffed penguins of all sizes--high up on shelves, in the welcoming window seat, tucked among the books, and most notably, Sir Penguin in a suit of armor standing guard over the children's area. The second floor is also home to a cozy sunroom displaying discounted titles at 50 percent off.

Perusing the ample displays in the adult area of the store, I discovered a memoir by Richard Russo entitled Elsewhere. I picked it up immediately as his novel, Straight Man, is one of my favorites. On the recommendation of Susan, I also purchased Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, an author new to me. Because I was so taken with the village of Sewickley, I rounded out my purchases with a Postcard History Series publication about the area by the Sewickley Valley Historical Society.


So, was the trouble finding my way to Penguin Bookshop worth it? My answer is a resounding, "Yes!" The store is interesting, well appointed, comfortable, and inviting. The staff is knowledgeable, helpful, and friendly. Anyone want to buy this great bookstore? I learned from Susan and Tess that Penguin Bookshop is for sale. I can only hope that whoever ultimately decides to purchase this gem aims to keep it a bookstore. It would be a shame to lose such a charmer as Penguin Bookshop.

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