Sewickley’s Penguin Bookshop celebrates 90 years

Monday, November 18, 2019 | 6:01 AM

The smell of freshly printed books greets you as you enter the Penguin Bookshop, located in the heart of Sewickley.

Friendly faces offer assistance to the steady flow of customers that enter the cozy space, quickly helping them find their next read or wrapping the perfect present to give to a friend.

For 90 years, the Penguin Bookshop has been a staple in the community.

“Our tagline is: Your community bookstore. And we really believe that,” said Susan Hans O’Connor, who has owned the shop since 2014. “This store is the community’s store, and we’ll be here as long as the community wants and values it and feels as if they need a bookstore in their town. We just rise to the occasion everyday to be the best bookstore that we can possibly be.”

The Penguin Bookshop first opened its doors Oct. 29, 1929, at 311 Chestnut St. The original owners, Isabelle L. Adams and Eleanor Gilchrist, who were Sewickley socialites, named the shop after their favorite book, “Penguin Island,” by Anatole France.

The shop changed hands and locations along Beaver Street a few times over the years.

Owners included Adalaide M. Russel, who operated the shop with her husband, Douglas Ritchey, at 434 Beaver St. for 40 years; Elizabeth “Elsie” Baker and her husband Chuck Allen, who ran the Penguin at 420 Beaver St. from 1981 to 1987; and Margaret Marshall, who owned the shop from 1987 to 2007.

In 2007, Janet and Bud McDanel purchased the shop and gave it a major facelift, with the building undergoing a $1 million renovation.

O’Connor, who previously worked as an editor in New York before her family moved to Sewickley in 2003, purchased the bookshop in 2014 after working there for a little under a year.

She moved the store to a previously vacant space at 417 Beaver St., where the entire 1,100-square-foot space was renovated.

“This is the perfect-size space for the size town that we are and the amount of business that we do,” O’Connor said as she made sure every book was neatly aligned on the shelves and tables.

What sets the Penguin Bookshop apart from the large, chain stores is the personal selection it offers, and the connection its sellers make with the customers.

The first thing customers often look at in the shop are the staff recommendations, O’Connor said. With a staff of nine, including a high school student, their recommendations vary to meet the needs of a wide audience.

The front of the shop focuses on new books released in the last few weeks.

It carries everything from fiction and nonfiction to Pittsburgh-themed books, and kids and baby books, along with gifts for baby showers and cards. The staff also offers gift-wrapping.

The shop is a member of the American Booksellers Association, the national umbrella for all independent bookstores, and includes selves of “Indie Best Sellers.”

Staffers make sure they offer what local customers want to read. That means at times they’ll order a book they see on a list just because they know a certain customer would love to read it.

They know many customers by name.

“They just pop in to say ‘Hi’ sometimes. It really is a community bookstore. It really is lovely that way,” said Lisa Johnson, who has worked as a bookseller at the shop for about five years.

“For a lot of people, it’s a place they stop when they’re going to get a coffee. It’s part of their routine,” said Nathaniel Whalen, 18, a senior at Quaker Valley High School who works at the shop. “Looking at books in person is really nice.”

Manager Mary Ferris has even been known to deliver books to people’s homes in the Village.

When “Wrecking Ball,” the latest edition in “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series, was released recently, Ferris told families who came in the day before that if they pre-purchased it, she would have it on their doorstep between 8 and 9 a.m. so their children could have it before school.

The shop hosts an average of 25 to 30 events a year, from launch parties for local authors to the rare event in 2016 when it was host to a stop on a Stephen King book tour.

Some events take place at the shop, while others — like King, which they capped at 622 people — are so large that they have to hold them offsite.

The shop also focuses on giving back, holding a monthly story time with the YMCA, where they regularly give books to children. They also support missions abroad.

Sandy McCoy, 72, of Sewickley, stops by the shop at least once a week. She likes small, local shops and asks her daughter to get her a gift certificate for the Penguin Bookshop for Christmas each year.

“I like the personal recommendations,” she said.

Chris Downes, 51, traveled from Baltimore to get her hair done at Hair Symmetry II and visit her mom in Elizabeth. She was so excited to see an independent bookstore that she had to stop in.

They provide a better quality of book, she said.

To celebrate 90 years, the shop has anniversary T-shirts and candles available for purchase. A customer appreciation day was held Oct. 26.

O’Connor, who sees herself as “the current steward of the store,” said to keep shops like the Penguin going, it’s important for people to remember that where they spend their money matters.

And while 90 years is a big milestone to celebrate, they’re already looking ahead.

“I want to be here when we turn 100,” Ferris said.