City Books puts emphasis on local authors, events, and the community.
June 6, 2022
After working as an English professor for 17 years in the Pittsburgh area, Arlen Hess bought City Books in 2015 from the son of the previous owners.
The bookstore originally opened in 1984 as a family business. It is located on Galveston Ave. on the North Side, and is a walkable distance from Heinz Field and the National Aviary.
“City Books is a legend in Pittsburgh, as it is the oldest existing bookstore in the city,” Hess said.
Hess has preserved the store remarkably. In fact, the shelves and some decorations in the bookstore today are the originals.
“I feel an obligation to the family who started this bookstore to keep this business up and running,” Hess said.
Born and raised in the area, Hess finds it important to keep the “city” in City Books. The store carries a number of works from Pittsburgh writers, along with a curated collection of used books of every genre. The store also offers locally made candles and T-shirts among other items.
“I am not a fan of digital books, as nothing can replace the experience of reading a book in your own hands,” Hess said.
Hess said that, unlike online retailers, independent bookstores take on the personality of the owner.
“I find big companies like Amazon as toxic ways of purchasing books. There are many other ways of indulging in books without lining the pockets of top-market giants,” Hess said.
Covid-19 was a big obstacle faced by businesses around the world. Like many, City Books had to find new ways of attracting customers.
“Prior to Covid, I didn’t sell anything online and had no way of mailing books out,” Hess said. “I shifted to social media and worked on making a presence.”
City Books now has over 100,000 TikTok followers.
“The profile the store has now, which it didn’t have outside of Pittsburgh before, is incredible. I send books all over the country now,” Hess said.
City Books is community-oriented, hosting events such as fundraisers, food drives, poetry nights, and artist talks with various authors. The bookstore is open Wednesday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and it requires masks.
“We think it’s important for everyone to get involved in making our city a lasting home for discussion, creativity, and healing,” Hess said.