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Not New York: Book Business and Culture in Pittsburgh, PA

pittsburgh-postcardThe reports are true: the “Paris of Appalachia” is having its belle époque. To outsiders, Pittsburgh might be better known for its smokestacked past and Steelers championships, but these are only a few of the city’s many faces. Thanks to a patchwork of neighborhoods, colleges, and cultures, the future is alive and well in southwestern Pennsylvania, and it’s looking pretty wordy.

The area is home to a number of presses, both independent and university-affiliated. The University of Pittsburgh Press and Carnegie Mellon University Press each publish a wide variety of books, and their respective poetry series were garnering acclaim long before Ross Gay’s National Book Award nomination last year. Indie publisher Braddock Avenue Books, named for a street in an adjoining steel town, specializes in realistic fiction and champions authors who live, or have lived, in Allegheny County. Autumn House Press publishes in all three major literary genres, and Hyacinth Girl Press produces small runs of handmade poetry chapbooks.

If that leaves you hungry, consider the buffet of literary magazines. Again, the universities play host: to name only a few examples, the University of Pittsburgh’s Hot Metal Bridge (where, full disclosure, I was once co-editor-in-chief) and Chatham University’s Fourth River are helmed by MFA candidates, and Duquesne’s undergraduates produce Lexicon.  It’s not all institutional, though. Weave, Pretty Owl Poetry, and Biddle’s Escape Quarterly are community-based projects, and The New Yinzer was formed as a challenge to, you know, that other bookish town. Lee Gutkind’s Creative Nonfiction, now a major magazine, was founded and remains in Pittsburgh’s East End. If you get confused, consult The Review Review, a sort of meta-journal about literary magazines the world over. Though it and its founder originally hail from New York, the enterprise is now based in the Steel City.

Some Pittsburgh’s bookstores have been community anchors for years, while others continue to open as of this writing. In Oakland, a major student neighborhood, Caliban sells used and rare books, while Phantom of the Attic stocks comic books, graphic novels, and all other sorts of nerd ephemera. The whole concept of bookstore-as-gathering-point isn’t lost on anyone in Pittsburgh: Amazing Books and Classic Lines often host events, like book releases and readings, while the Big Idea Bookstore – an anarchist cooperative – declares itself “a safe space for all individuals to explore and alternative ideas.” The near-future opening of the White Whale Bookstore is eagerly anticipated, and Nine Stories is now in its first full week of operation.

Of course, Pittsburgh’s status as a writerly town is nothing new; Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny West, and Willa Cather spent a decade writing and teaching there before moving to New York City. What’s new, then, is the increased attention paid by authors from other places. Pittsburgh is now a popular stop for many book tours, and the city’s various reading and lecture series – among them the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series, Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, and Acquired Taste – host local favorites and big names alike.

Even at a distance, it’s possible to take in this vibrant scene. Podcast fans can catch up on Prosody, a production of 90.5 WESA, which features interviews and readings from authors both locally and internationally famous. There’s also [in brackets], a new branch of the aforementioned Hot Metal Bridge, where MFA students talk shop and play pinball with visiting writers. Littsburgh is a website dedicated to cataloguing and highlighting events, places, and people who make this city what it is – which makes it excellent reading for wistful expats like yours truly.

A number of thinkpieces have hailed Pittsburgh as “the new Brooklyn,” but it would be a mistake to define one in terms of the other. (Besides, the lifelong ‘Burghers hate that.) It’s best to think of Pittsburgh as a completely unique place, rich in idiosyncrasy and welcoming to anyone with literary inclinations. Yinz guys should check it out.

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