In Pittsburgh, a Bookstore Where ‘Freewheeling Curiosity’ Reigns

PITTSBURGH — Some love nothing more than quietly browsing in a bookshop. Not me: I browse loudly. Especially in secondhand stores. If I find a comely edition of an old favorite, or an intriguing title by an author I don’t know, I look up for someone, usually the owner or clerk, to kibbitz with.

All too often, I fail. Used bookstores, in particular, seem to be staffed by those who disdain my lowbrow tastes or resent talking to customers.

Then there’s Eric Ackland, the owner of Amazing Books & Records in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. He seems to have read or listened to everything in his shop, from Isaac Asimov to Michael Connelly to that small-press biography of a dead Hasidic master. He’ll gladly neglect the endless task of computerizing his shelf-busting inventory to talk with you about his beloved 19th-century authors like George Eliot and Dostoyevsky, or his fine selection of Jewish theology. On his way to becoming an Orthodox Jew in his 30s, Ackland briefly took an interest in Christian apologetics, and one day last winter we talked G.K. Chesterton as the store’s hi-fi piped early Pat Benatar.

“A bookstore clerk or owner is inevitably something of a therapist,” Ackland, 47, said more recently. “I’ve worked dozens of retail and restaurant jobs, and this is the one that seems to invite the greatest degree of intimacy, probably because people think that the shop-person doesn’t have anything to do but read and talk.”

Squirrel Hill is one of the oldest Jewish neighborhoods in the country, home to synagogues such as the Tree of Life, where 11 worshipers, from the three congregations sharing the building, were killed last fall by a gunman shouting anti-Semitic slurs. After the massacre, shops like Amazing Books functioned as sanctuaries.

It is the quintessential Squirrel Hill venture, being obviously commercial — books coming in by the shopping bag, going out one or two at a time — and spiritual. I don’t mean Ackland’s black yarmulke or the ritual fringes visible below his shirttails, but rather the temples to freewheeling curiosity that he has built at this location and his other branch in downtown Pittsburgh.

A Philadelphia native who never finished high school, Ackland moved to Pittsburgh for the woman who eventually became his wife; they are raising her three children from her first marriage and the two they’ve had together. In 2013, when he was trying to build a freelance copy-writing business, he had gone downtown to the Department of Motor Vehicles, which was closed, and wound up in a store called Awesome Books, which was open. He began chatting up the owner.

“I mentioned how I’d worked in a bookstore like this and at one point had been thinking about opening one,” Ackland said. “And he said, ‘Well, this one’s for sale.’” But the owner wasn’t selling the name, so after Ackland sank a small inheritance from his grandmother into acquiring the business, in 2013 Awesome Books became Amazing Books. The next year, he opened the Squirrel Hill location and changed the business’s name to Amazing Books & Records.

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