"It's not a good time for books that are well written," Robert Peluso muses over coffee at Squirrel Hill's 61C. "Books that are composed instead of just packaged."
"Imperiled," his publishing partner, Jeffrey Condran, suggests. "These books are imperiled."
"Imperiled," Peluso nods. "Imperiled is a better word."
"That's why it's all the more important that we made this gesture," Condran adds.
This gesture is their two-year-old publishing venture, Braddock Avenue Books, which was born from the idea that the world needs more literary fiction. That may sound counterintuitive in an era of ubiquitous social media and severely limited attention spans, but Condran and Peluso, both of whom teach writing at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, took space in Braddock's UnSmoke Systems arts colony and put out a call for submissions. Braddock Avenue now publishes three books a year.
"Our books present thoughtful, considered ideas of the world," Peluso says. "If there's one thing that distinguishes a Braddock Avenue book, it's an authentic vision of what it's like to be alive in the 21st century."
"We want serious books that investigate who we are," Condran says.
So far, those books include:
— Aubrey Hirsch's Why We Never Talk About Sugar, 16 searing short stories of heartache, loss and longing
— Catherine Gammon's harrowing Sorrow, a near-hallucinatory novel of family connection, sexual abuse and redemption
— Salvatore Pane's Last Call in the City of Bridges, a funny, post-college coming-of-age tale of a man escaping a dead-end job, the bottle and his fetid daydreams
Hailed by such A-list, Pittsburgh-based writers as Toi Derricotte and Stewart O'Nan, a number of these initial Braddock Avenue offerings have been short-listed for national writing awards.
Even so, publishing "remains an enormous challenge," Peluso says. "Not only finding the right books, but then distributing them."
"Even more important," Condran adds, "is finding friendly readers."
Lately, though, the world seems ready to arrive at their door. Braddock Avenue now receives many more high-quality manuscripts than it can publish. Condran and Peulso say the outpouring of support from the literary world reminds them of the 1920s and '50s, when the number of American literary publishing houses skyrocketed. From New Directions to City Lights to Grove and more, writers, editors, publishers and readers were ready — eager — for literature that pushed boundaries past safe themes and ready markets.
"Our readers are out there," Peluso says. "They're looking for authenticity and honesty, literature that speaks to these times."
These times also demand contemporary marketing. Although tweets and blogs have decimated discretionary reading time, Braddock Avenue Books is relying on those platforms to market itself. Using social media to publicize, recruit and review new work, Peluso and Condran have linked themselves to far-flung outposts of the literary landscape. As word spreads, serious readers — literally from all over the world — find Braddock Avenue Books, chat, read, recommend.
Now, as Braddock Avenue Books' Facebook numbers approach 1,000, Peluso and Condran are beginning to revel in their virtual salon. "We are developing a group of serious, committed readers," Peluso says. "People who talk and share. People who are involved in the writing life."
"We're profoundly grateful that we've had such a great early response," Condran says. "People may come to visit, but they end up being part of the community. They develop a kind of literary citizenship — even if they never buy a book."
People do buy, of course. Locally, Braddock Avenue's books are available at East End Book Exchange, Caliban Book Shop and Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley. (The books are also available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble's website and www.braddockavenuebooks.com.)
Most books in the Braddock Avenue catalog sell between 500 and 1,000 copies. That's a flyspeck for such giants as Random House and Macmillan, but quite respectable for a fledgling literary press. And Braddock Avenue plans to do what any successful business does — introduce another product line.
Over sandwiches one night, Peluso and Condran decided to launch a new imprint, Alleyway Books, coming this November. "We chose the name because of the evocative nature of alleys — the way they're filled with unexpected encounters and discoveries," Peluso says. "Edgy and mysterious. Perhaps including the supernatural. We envision the imprint to favor new and younger authors. Nevertheless, we'll continue to pursue our core mission: books that seriously engage readers about contemporary life."
With a launch party set for the Wigle Distillery on Nov. 3, the pair hope their many friends will come to celebrate — either in person or online.
Still, despite all the parties and planning, the heart of publishing is finding authors whom Peluso and Condran admire, and who they want to share with the world. "To discover writers," Peluso says, "then publish their words in book form — their ideas, their vision. More than anything, that's incredibly rewarding."