Barbara Jeremiah has spent a career in corporate boardrooms, but she’s always felt at home among bookshelves. In 2012, that feeling moved her to join with a friend to buy Undercover Books in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where she lives part of the year.
It’s also what’s inspired her to start up Pittsburgh’s newest independent bookstore, Riverstone Books, which is set to open in October in a massive “town center” development in the northern corner of the city.
“My husband and I always want to live someplace where there is a bookstore,” said Jeremiah, a Pittsburgh native who spent 32 years at Alcoa Inc. in legal and top executive roles. A lawyer by training and semi-retired now, Jeremiah still serves on several corporate boards.
The new store is a short hop from a former Borders site, and has at least one customer already lined up — Jeremiah’s mom. “A really underserved population with the closure of Borders are folks who can still drive, but won’t drive far. My mom is 92, but loves to read and wants to buy books,” Jeremiah said.
The strategy of opening near old Borders sites is one Jeremiah picked up at a meeting of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA), which she joined when she took over Undercover Books.
Riverstone Books will open in a one-million-square-foot development called McCandless Crossing, which is also home to other retailers, restaurants, offices, housing, and hotels.
The developers even put a bookstore in their marketing materials as an aspiration before they started signing tenants, Jeremiah said.
“Bookstores are really the backbone of a community,” said Kevin Dougherty, president of AdVenture Development. “Pittsburgh has 39 colleges and universities in the metro area. We felt like a bookstore really fit in the Town of McCandless’ plan for what they wanted to see in a mixed-use community.”
AdVenture Development held a space next to Panera Bread for the bookstore. The advantage of being near a coffee shop is one of the bookselling lessons Jeremiah has learned in her years at Undercover Books with co-owner Kobie Nichols.
While Jeremiah is overseeing the finishing touches on interior construction that began at Riverstone Books on August 8, part of her attention is diverted by the plight of her first store.
“I don’t know what the condition of the store is right now,” she said. “We dodged Hurricane Irma, but, unfortunately, Maria was a direct hit on Puerto Rico and St. Croix.”
Nichols, who lives full time in St. Croix, has been sheltering under a curfew and has been unable to get out to assess damage, Jeremiah said. The partners are scouring the pictures of the island that friends are posting on Facebook, hoping to get a glimpse of their store.
While she worries about Undercover Books, Jeremiah said she’s primarily concerned about her employees, customers, friends, and other residents of the island.
“It’s really important for the community to have a bookstore, but at the end of the day, it’s more important to have a grocery store,” she said. “If you have trees and power lines across the road, buying books is not the first thing on your customers’ list for what to do.”
In St. Croix, Jeremiah’s customers are a mix of year-round residents, tourists, and snowbirds, like herself, who come from November to May.
“The bookstore was profitable from the day we bought it,” she said. “My hope is that if we can do it in St. Croix, we can do it in Pittsburgh. We have much better logistical support here.”
Jeremiah, who has two silent partners in Riverstone, said she would not have had the confidence to open a brand-new store five years ago but believes her experience will help Riverstone succeed.
Just as she had when she took over Undercover Books, Jeremiah hired bookstore consultants Donna Paz Kaufman and Mark Kaufman to advise her on Riverstone’s design, store layout, and product mix.
The newly built space came with nothing more than drywall, so Jeremiah had to arrange for flooring, painting, and lighting as well as the furniture to turn the 2,100-square-foot rectangular selling space into a cozy bookstore where customers will want to linger and browse.
“I’m really fortunate that, between myself and my partners, we were able to go with fixtures that were high-end,” she said. “We wanted to invest in a bookstore that looks like it’s here to stay. We want it to be a welcoming place.”
There is a clear line of sight back to the children’s area, where partial walls enclose a carpeted space designed for weekly story time. Jeremiah has hired an artist to create a Harry Potter-inspired mural for the “kids’ cave,” as she’s calling it.
Jeremiah is also thinking of her mom and other customers on the upper end of the age spectrum in her choice of furnishings. “We’ll have a mix of seating for all ages, including seats with arms,” she said.
She expects to host book clubs and author signings as well as other events. “One of the great things about being in Pittsburgh as opposed to St. Croix is I never get authors to make it to St. Croix unless they are on vacation,” she said.
She also is looking forward to two-day shipments for resupplying her shelves as opposed to the three weeks it can take to get books on a ship from Miami.
Just as in St. Croix, Jeremiah plans to have a large local section. But instead of books about sailing, she expects to have a very large shelf about Pittsburgh and include the many authors who have lived in or written about the city, such as historian David McCullough.
She also hopes to pair with other Pittsburgh businesses, including that of a grade-school friend who opened a craft whiskey distillery in the city. “We’re going to work with family owned, indie businesses that have been successful in Pittsburgh,” she said.
The name and logo of the store is inspired by the city, whose geography is shaped by the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers, as well as its rocky soil. “Rivers have always been an important part of the life of Pittsburgh,” she said. “In part, it’s a tribute to our topography. There’s a lot of thought that went into the logo.”
Jeremiah has hired Kristin Pidgeon, an experienced bookseller, as a full-time manager as well as five part-time booksellers. The employees were chosen not only for their selling skills but for their favorite literary genres to ensure the store has a mix of knowledge to assist patrons.
Jeremiah does not expect to be in the store every day, but will share book-buying duties with Pidgeon and will handle event scheduling and marketing. “In winters, I still expect to go St. Croix and support the store there,” she said.
She will also be in charge of the gift selection, tapping into her expertise from Undercover Books, where soap and tote bags are big sellers.
At Riverstone, Jeremiah plans to sell educational games and toys, jigsaw puzzles, plush toys to accompany children’s books, as well as kitchen tools in a cookbook section she is excited to stock. “With the warm weather in St. Croix, there was less enthusiasm for baking,” she said.
There may also be cooking events highlighting locally popular foods, such as pierogis. “That’s the kind of thing I think bookstores can do to add to the community experience,” Jeremiah said.