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Best Bookstore: Joseph-Beth Bookseller

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As befits its hyphenated name, our readers' choice for best bookstore is something of a hybrid. It's an independently owned bookstore chain, and while it has stores in three states, it still retains a local touch.

It's not just a bookstore, either: Divided between two levels, the 39,000-square-foot store offers wares that transcend the written page. Basically, if it can be inserted into, or wrapped around, a pair of covers, you can probably find it here. .

But let's back up a moment. What is up with the name?

Joseph-Beth was founded in Lexington, Ky., back in 1986. And its somewhat cumbersome title was chosen by its owners: Neil Van Uum, whose middle name is Joseph, and his wife, Mary Beth.

Well, actually, that's his ex-wife, Mary Beth. And if that provides a cautionary lesson for any aspiring mom-and-pop retailers out there, there's a lot more they could learn from the Van Uums. From a single location of just 6,500 square feet, Joseph-Beth has expanded to include locations in Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Charlotte, N.C. The Pittsburgh location opened in 2004.

And marketing manager Jeffrey Inscho says customers benefit from the store's dual nature. On the one hand, because the Joseph-Beth empire has a multistate reach, it's able to attract name-brand authors like Janet Evanovich for readings and book signings. (A recent visit by football great Joe Namath, he says, lasted four hours, "and he spoke to every single person in line. The kids especially were in awe.") On the other hand, Inscho says, because "It's basically run like a local small business, all our decisions on stocking and inventory are made locally." So the store is able to feature books, and readings, by local authors as well.

Pittsburghers respond warmly to the treatment. "Our sports books do great, obviously -- the Steelers books are just unbelievable," Inscho says. "In October, we had a lot of big titles -- Bob Woodward's latest book, you name it -- but our biggest seller was Pittsburgh Ultimate Trivia. So you have local books outpacing the books featured on 60 Minutes."

Joseph-Beth's No. 1 all-time best seller, in fact, is ... Stuart Boehmig's Pittsburgh's South Side, the latest in a series of photo-driven softcover popular histories. (Fittingly, the star performer himself will be on hand for a signing at 2 p.m. on Dec. 17.)

Of course, books are no longer just books. Like every other consumer product, they are increasingly a kind of lifestyle purchase. To reflect that fact -- and the store's location in the trend-conscious SouthSide Works shopping district -- Joseph-Beth also offers on its first floor an array of literary accessories: handbags, stationery, the works. The store also features a music section, and stuff for kids as well. (A good purchase if you want to keep the little buggers' mouths shut while pondering the pomo mysteries of Auster's New York trilogy.)

"We offer Vera Bradley handbags here," says Inscho. "We try to pair specialty items that might interest people with the books we sell."

Literary purists may wonder whether books are being bought more as fashion statements, rather than for what they say inside. Just as you might buy a painting to match the couch, are we buying books to match the handbag? Maybe so. But it's hard to argue with the store's commitment to local authors, its aptly chosen selection of books on current affairs, or its solid magazine rack.

At a time when local bookstores are squeezed by chains, and chain bookstores are squeezed by Internet outlets like Amazon.com, Joseph-Beth might be striking just the right balance. If our readers' poll is any indication, the store is big enough to go toe-to-toe with the heavies, but small enough not to lose touch with readers.

"We're not planning to expand to other cities," says Inscho. "And we're certainly not planning to expand in Pittsburgh. We want to specialize in being a local bookstore. That's really where our focus is."

So for its part, Joseph-Beth hopes to stay right where it is: in a handful of one-of-a-kind locations, in a handful of cities. And at the top of the City Paper readers' poll.

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