Despite the obstacles posed by a pandemic that has persisted for more than a third of White Whale Bookstore’s six-year history, by adhering to a motto of “conversation, community, culture”, it has grown to meet the needs Pittsburgh readers and writers—not to mention the two co-owners themselves.
“The first few years we lived here, there weren’t really any bookstores in Pittsburgh selling new books — they only sold used books,” noted Jill Yeomans, owner of White Whale with her husband, Adlai Yeomans. The couple, who met in 2009 while working as a publisher at Hachette Book Group (he at Center Street Books, she at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), moved to Steel City in 2012 because they “really wanted to get out of New York”. York City” and had enjoyed their previous visits to see a friend of Adlai’s who lived in Pittsburgh.
The Yeomans became bookstore owners in 2016 when they acquired the second-hand East End Book Exchange from Lesley Rains. The couple immediately revamped the store’s interior design and inventory and transformed it into White Whale. “We had always hoped to open a bookstore,” Jill said. “Having one that already had all the libraries and was established made it much easier to sell the idea to ourselves, because someone else was already doing it.”
The transition from publishing professionals to booksellers was relatively easy, Adlai recalls. “Having been in this editing environment really educated us on what it takes to run a bookstore,” he said. “And understanding the relationship between the publisher and a new independent bookstore – we had a head start on what it was all about.”
As for the name of the bookstore, a tribute to Moby-Dick“It scores well, looks good and sounds good,” Adlai said, adding that “surprisingly” there were no other indies in the United States with names referencing Herman’s novel. Melville.
“It’s easily recognizable as a literary reference,” Jill pointed out.
Although White Whale is a general bookstore that sells both adult and children’s books, its largest section is, unsurprisingly given its name, literary fiction. “It’s our biggest driver,” Jill remarked, noting that works in translations are also selling well, as are graphic books.
Several independents selling new books have opened in Pittsburgh since 2016, but Adlai said two categories in particular set White Whale apart: it offers a wide selection of LGBTQ titles, as well as books dedicated to local authors and presses. “We do that in a very big way,” Adlai said. “We carry many titles from West Virginia University Press and Westview Press. Our local also celebrates all the writers in town. It’s a vibrant community of writers here, so we try to bring that to light.
Jill said, “We didn’t know this until we moved here, but Pittsburgh has a robust and active poetry scene. People come from other cities to read poetry here. White Whale has supported local writers by “hosting many series which have begun to grow and gain momentum over time”. It also combines in-store events featuring local writers with each other or with touring authors, “to take advantage of both clienteles and introduce people to authors they may not have known through an author who already fascinates them”.
White Whale had a dynamic pre-Covid programming schedule and managed to host around 300 virtual writer events in the first two years of the pandemic. Virtual events, Adlai pointed out, “are a great tool for working with independent presses and smaller presses that don’t have the resources to bring authors to visit Pittsburgh. It’s a great way to connect with those writers and editors. Going forward, White Whale plans to offer a mix of virtual and in-person events, including offsite events in partnership with the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures series and with the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, as well as other local literary organizations. .
White Whale further engages guests in “conversation, community, culture” with the addition earlier this year of a 1,500 square foot cafe serving coffee, tea and local beer, as well than baked goods. “You can order a cortado, get a book, and walk out,” Adlai said. “It’s nice to walk in and see people hanging out, reading or talking with their friends. We’ve always tried to be the third place, the place where people hang out, and now it is.
Jill added: “We have tried to put the community first in our store through our events, the books we stock and the atmosphere of the store when you are there. When we kicked off the cafe, it felt like it had finally come together; it looked like the store we had always imagined.
A version of this article originally appeared in the 08/29/2022 issue of Weekly editors under the title: Bookstore Spotlight: White Whale Bookstore