Squirrel Hill bookstore unites community

Written By Nardos Haile, For The Globe

Photo by Nardos Haile
Books are on display at Class Lines in Squirrel Hill.

Dan Iddings opened Classic Lines five years ago simply because he wanted to, but he didn’t know that the bookstore would become a success nationally and locally in its Squirrel Hill community.

“I don’t know how we did this but early on we figured out what would be a good fit for Squirrel Hill,” Iddings explained. “It’s just worked. Our success is all location.”

About 10 years ago, the book retailers Barnes and Noble and Borders went out of business in Squirrel Hill and the East Side. Iddings knew there was a vacancy to be filled in the community.

“I didn’t move on it right away,” Iddings said. “I spent a lot of time working on a business plan, just doing lots of stuff to plan for and I thought this is getting so out of control I can’t afford this. So, I sort of put it on the back burner for a long time.”

Iddings, a former librarian, worked as an assistant director of the Carnegie Library system until the late 90s when he was hired to direct the Pennsylvania Academic Library Consortium which is located at the University of Pittsburgh, and worked there for 11 years.

He decided to move forward on the bookstore about five years ago and he says since the bookstore’s opening in 2014, “It’s never been a struggle.”

Any stranger could understand why Classic Lines garnered success from the start. The bookstore houses hundreds of handpicked books chosen by Iddings and his employees. It also fosters a comfortable environment from the second a potential customer walks through the threshold of the doorway.

Many walks of life enter the store on a daily basis. People ranging from out-of- town visitors, older couples, Carnegie Mellon students and families with giggling children.

People walk in and out throughout the day browsing Classic Lines’ extensive book collection or they relax in one of the comfortable chairs with a book in hand. They also get to interact with the store’s resident dog Duchess.

“It’s not one of those big category buster stores, the selection seems like it’s thought out well and it covers the subjects that I like,” Michael Todor, 66, an extensive reader who lives 50 miles north of Pittsburgh, said. “It’s not too large that you get lost in it. It’s got places to sit and read.”

The store welcomes all people, and its evident through its “Welcome Your Neighbors” sign plastered right in the window of the storefront.

Jennifer Lines, 24, a former Pitt student, and a Classic Lines regular, said every time she walks into the store she feels relaxed. “Right now its noisier than it normally is,” Lines said with a laugh. “I love it here. I find it refreshing.”

“When Dan decided to open the bookstore, I called him and said I want to work,” Mary Sue Iddings, a Classic Lines’ employee and retired librarian, said. “The people that come in are great, the people I work with are great, so all the things are positive. And I can bring my dog [Duchess] to work.”

Jennifer Wright, another Classic Lines employee called the store, “A welcoming environment to work in.”

Classic Lines is one of many independent bookstores in the nation that is thriving in an Amazon dominated market. Axios Media reports that in the last 10 years, independent bookstores have grown by nearly 50 percent, from 1,651 to 2,470 stores. Print book sales have also risen every year since 2013 and E-book sales are dropping.

“We have a customer base here that doesn’t shop on Amazon,” Iddings said. “We probably get six people a day who walk in and order a book; you know, they don’t want to buy it on Amazon, they want to buy it from us.”

Iddings noted that Amazon displaced about 900,000 retails jobs in 2018 and said, “People are starting to understand if they’re interested in supporting their community then they don’t shop on Amazon.”

In March 2019, Business Insider reports that 4,000 retailers have announced its closures and the numbers are only expected to rise. This includes retail stores such as Payless ShoeSource, Charlotte Russe and Sears.

This is why Iddings emphasizes to browse and buy locally to support the community. There are even signs in the bookstore encouraging customers to continue to buy and support local small businesses.

Undoubtedly, Classic Lines was already a beloved spot in the community but an event that cemented the bookstore’s status as a Squirrel Hill safe haven was the Tree of Life Synagogue mass shooting in October 2018.

“People knew that it was a place to go after the shooting occurred,” Iddings said. “We sent out an Instagram message and a tweet the day of the shooting saying if you just don’t want to sit at home come here and nobody showed. The next day we were really busy, lots of people came.”

Iddings said people came to the store to relax in their down time and this continued all throughout the holidays. The store was at its busiest in the following months in November and December.

“The neighborhood will never be back to normal but everybody is sort of back in their routine and so that’s been a good thing,” Iddings said.

Furthermore, the support Classic Lines gave to the community is the sole reason why it was nominated for Bookstore of the Year by Publisher’s Weekly.

Every year Publisher’s Weekly recognizes independent bookstores that have “an outsized impact on their communities.”

Classic Lines is one out of five final nominees for Bookstore of the Year nominated by the magazine. It was recognized due to “contributing to the current rise in independent bookselling,” said Publisher’s Weekly executive vice president and publisher Cevin Bryerman.

“In some ways we were nominated because we were here as the safe haven after the shooting, had the shooting not occurred it probably wouldn’t have occurred to the nominator to notice us,” Iddings said.

Iddings was blown away at the nomination. He was at home and sick when he received the call confirming the store was recognized. “You feel really honored, special, humbled at the same time.”

Publisher’s Weekly will announce the winner at the end of March. The Classic Lines crew is keeping their fingers crossed for the final few weeks until the announcement.

Ultimately, Classic Lines will continue to serve and support its community whether it wins bookstore of the year or not. It will continue to be a safety net for the Squirrel Hill community.

“There’s a movie called “Empire Records” and there’s this line that reminds me of Classic Lines,” Wright said. “‘You’re in the store. You’re going to be okay.’”