Susan Hans O’Connor is the owner of the Penguin Bookshop, an independent bookstore located in Sewickley, PA since 1929. She has owned the store for five years and works tirelessly to bring her community a place to converse, buy books, and meet authors. We are so happy to interview her and learn more about her and the Penguin Bookshop!
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I began my publishing career back in the 90s (yes...I’m ancient :-)). I was doing temp work in NYC, and the agency sent me to Penguin Books. I couldn’t believe it when I walked in and saw the big Penguin logo behind the receptionist’s desk. I had always been a big reader and a writer and devoured books published by Penguin, but growing up in the Midwest, I never really thought about HOW or WHERE a book was created. The people there were all so nice and smart, and their talent was inspiring. Long story short, I ended up taking a permanent job there as an Editorial Assistant to two big-shot editors.
Why did you decide to buy the Penguin Bookshop?
When we first relocated to Pittsburgh in 2003, I looked for a way to continue my editorial work, but it wasn’t easy. So I did freelance editing, and then I got a Masters Degree in Education and my Teaching Certificate so that I could teach English and writing, which I always thought would be fun. While I was long-term subbing in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, I also began working as a bookseller at the Penguin Bookshop. I loved it. In the store, I felt reconnected to my publishing roots. Then it just so happened that Janet McDanel wanted to sell the business in 2013, just a few months after I started working there. And the rest is history. :-)
Why is it important to shop locally, and what do independent bookstores do for the community?
Shopping locally is all about creating the kind of communities we want to live in. Do you want to be able to literally walk down the street and go into a coffee shop, pick up a cute scarf for Aunt Harriet, have your kids ride their bikes into town for some special candy, then stop in for storytime and a book recommendation? Or do you want to stay at home and order everything from your computer, while your town looks like a wasteland? In the end, it’s a choice.
Independent bookstores provide conversation and connection. We bring in authors, both locally and nationally, who spark those conversations, conversations we might not otherwise have. We give back to our local library, Y, and other organizations. We provide part-time jobs for students and contribute to the local tax base. We have a national presence in the book community, as members of the American Booksellers Association, which is good for our town and good for Pittsburgh. Thanks to the Penguin Bookshop, the White Whale, and Riverstone Books, Pittsburgh will be the host city in the summer of 2019 to the ABA’s Children’s Institute, a national conference that brings in hundreds of booksellers and publishers from around the country. This wouldn’t have happened without the bookstores we have here.
What do you see for the future of independent bookstores, and how can we help ensure their success?
The future of independent bookstores depends on you, the community. Successful bookstores meet the needs of their communities, which we try to do everyday, but the community has to want a local bookstore in their town and demonstrate that interest by shopping there.
What’s the most important thing you have learned as a small business owner?
Hmmm, that’s a hard one, because I have learned SO MUCH in the last five years. I think one thing that stands out is that for a business our size in a community of our size, it is important to focus on the things that really matter. I can’t change the demographics of our town or force people to walk through our doors. But what I can do is work to create a bookstore, built on an 89 year history, that is relevant to the community, and that the community still finds valuable. This is what I have tried to do since buying the store in 2014.
Thanks so much for joining us, Susan!
You heard her folks - the best way to keep independent bookstores alive is to shop there. If you haven’t visited the Penguin Bookshop yet, I encourage you to do so! Its local charm and great books will keep you coming back!