"I believe strongly in the opportunity here to bring previously under-read works from all parts of the world to our community," said Lesley Rains, manager of City of Asylum Books in Pittsburgh, Pa., which will open in early September. The store is affiliated with the nonprofit City of Asylum, which provides sanctuary to exiled poets and writers and runs literary-themed community programs. "[City of Asylum] wants to create a space and store that's different from anything in Pittsburgh," Rains added.
City of Asylum Books will be part of a larger retail space called Alphabet City. One third of Alphabet City will consist of a restaurant, another third will be a community space by day and an event space by night, and the other third will belong to City of Asylum Books. The store will have about 1,500 square feet of retail space, and to accommodate the possibility of very large events, every bookshelf will be movable. Rains plans to stock 10,000-12,000 books at launch and gradually increase to an overall stock of about 15,000 titles. The majority of those books, Rains said, will be new, and there will be a small selection of used titles as well. And though City of Asylum Books won't be a specialty store in the sense that it focuses on only one or two genres, the inventory will fit in with City of Asylum's overall mission.
"There will be works in translation, global literature, American literature from underrepresented groups, but in as many genres as we can fill," Rains explained. There will also be cookbooks, children's books, books on cultural studies and much more. Many of City of Asylum's used books will be out-of-print works in translation. "The idea is to bring new kinds of works to as many people as possible, but you might not be able to find the new James Patterson here."
Before signing on to be the manager of City of Asylum Books, Rains owned and operated her own independent bookstore in Pittsburgh, East End Book Exchange, for five years. She sold the store earlier this year before joining City of Asylum, and prior to opening her own store in 2011 she was an academic. According to Rains, City of Asylum's mission and its reputation in Pittsburgh drew her to joining the organization.
"It's a very well regarded organization," said Rains. "They've been doing important work for the past decade now. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up."
|Future home of Alphabet City
Beyond bringing underrepresented books to new audiences, City of Asylum Books hopes to create a hub for Pittsburgh's literary community. To that end, events will be a major part of City of Asylum Books; Rains expects to host multiple events per week and is already filling up the calendar for this fall. Plans for the store's grand opening celebration are taking shape, and the store's inaugural reader will be Svetlana Alexievich, the Nobel Prize-winning author of Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (Dalkey Archive Press in hardcover; Picador in paperback). Also on the docket for September is a visit from Idra Novey, the author of the novel Ways to Disappear (Little, Brown). Rains is also considering ways to partner with and feature local and self-published writers.
"The store will be a community space first and foremost," Rains said. "A space where local writers can bring their works."
Besides book events, City of Asylum Books will also host music events, with weekly performances, along with things like banned film nights and other screenings.
The Alphabet City space is still under construction with a prospective move in date of August, and Rains is busy sorting out POS systems, setting up publisher accounts and building inventory lists. On opening day, the staff will most likely consist of Rains and one other person, though she may add more staff members as time goes on (the Alphabet City restaurant will be operated and managed by a different group).
Rains said she eagerly anticipates opening day, saying, "I just hope that people visit the store with open hearts and open minds." --Alex Mutter