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An Interview with City of Asylum Books, Pittsburgh’s New Bookstore of International Literature

By Jessie Chaffee

City of Asylum, a nonprofit organization in Pittsburgh that offers sanctuary for exiled writers and literary programming, recently opened City of Asylum Books, a bookstore specializing in world literature in translation. We spoke with bookstore manager Lesley Rains about the store’s mission, and the collections and programming that visitors can look forward to.

Words Without Borders: How will City of Asylum Books differ from other bookstores? What types of books can readers expect to find on the shelves? 

Lesley Rains (pictured left): City of Asylum Books specializes in works in translation and world literature. We are committed to furthering City of Asylum’s mission of giving voice to marginalized and underrepresented communities. Our store consists primarily of new books in a range of genres, casting a wide geographic net. I wanted to represent as many cultures and regions as possible. Our biggest sections are fiction, poetry, and children’s books. We feature the significant collections from major publishers of translated works, such as New Directions, Dalkey Archive, and New York Review of Books, while also showcasing works by a number of smaller presses who are also doing good and important work.  

Our bookstore shares a space with a performance center, which is where our governing organization, City of Asylum, will host all of their events and readings going forward. We also share space with a restaurant, Casellula, which specializes in fine cheeses and wine. So, a visitor to the bookstore can buy a book then enjoy a glass of wine at the restaurant’s bar without having to go outside. It’s really a unique experience in Pittsburgh.  

We are committed to furthering City of Asylum’s mission of giving voice to marginalized and underrepresented communities. Our store consists primarily of new books in a range of genres, casting a wide geographic net. 

WWB: One of the issues that we discuss at Words Without Borders is how to reach readers beyond those already interested in literature in translation. How do you hope to draw new readers to international literature and literature in translation? How will the bookstore engage with the community in Pittsburgh?

LR: That’s a really good question, and it’s something we very cognizant of. We are doing a range of projects to introduce new readers to international and translated literature. We have dedicated publisher bookshelves. For example, New Directions and New York Review of Books are two of the publishers that have featured shelves. That way we can easily direct customers who aren’t familiar with translated literature to some of the more prominent, contemporary titles. We also have a display dedicated to translated new releases. Currently, it showcases works such as Carlo Rovelli’s Reality is Not What it Seems, Javier Marias’s Thus Bad Begins, Samantha Schweblin’s Fever Dream, and Haruki Murakami’s Absolutely on Music, among others. We are also making a lot of shelf talkers to introduce unfamiliar titles. It always amazes me how effective a well-written shelf talker can be. We are hosting a regular story hour for children, which will feature international literature. We’re also planning to roll out a Frequent Buyer Program, a membership program, and a monthly subscription service.  

Fortunately, Pittsburgh is a pretty cosmopolitan and international town, so I am cautiously optimistic that there will be a good response to and demand for more international literature.

Image: Jennifer Kraar leads a storytelling hour at City of Asylum Books.  

WWB: How do you find the works in translation and international literature that you stock?

LR: I use some traditional bookseller methods, such as Edelweiss and sales rep recommendations. I also follow a lot of literary journals and magazines, especially ones dedicated to translation and world literature, such as Asymptote, World Literature Today, and Words without Borders, to keep up with the latest trade news. The Three Percent blog is also an incredible resource. I’m a researcher by nature, so for me it is a lot of fun to dig for new and interesting books to stock.  

I knew I wanted to create something that was distinctive and has a unique, clear identity. I think people recognize that right away.

WWB: Are you working with writers who have been supported by City of Asylum? In what other ways will the store engage with international writers, including those living in exile? 

LR: City of Asylum published books by a number of the writers who have stayed with the organization and we are proud to carry their works in our store. COA regularly hosts readings and events with international writers and writers whose works include cross-cultural themes.  

Image: Lesley Rains (right) at the post-opening celebration.

WWB: The bookstore opened just this past Saturday. What has the community response been like? Is there anything that has surprised or excited you in these first few days of its being open?

LR: The community response has been incredibly supportive and positive. I was most surprised by the turnout to our grand opening event. It seemed like there were a thousand people in the store. At one point, we had a line ten people deep. And we only have one cash register! As I was preparing the store over the summer and fall, I knew I wanted to create something that was distinctive and has a unique, clear identity. I think people recognize that right away, which has been really gratifying. But there is always more work to do.

Read WWB’s Writing Exile issue

Read works by City of Aslyum Exiled Writers-in-Residence Israel Centeno, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and Yaghoub Yadali, and by COA Visiting Writer Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo.

Lesley Rains is the manager of City of Asylum Books. She grew up an avid reader in Pittsburgh, but lived for several years in Germany and Belgium. Her first job as a teenager was stocking the shelves of the local B. Dalton Booksellers. Prior to working for City of Asylum, she owned and operated East End Book Exchange, an independent bookstore still open (but under a new name) in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood. Her favorite author is Margaret Atwood.

City of Asylum’s mission is to create a thriving community for writers, readers, and neighbors. City of Asylum provides sanctuary to endangered literary writers, so that the writers can continue to write and their voices are not silenced, and offers a broad range of literary-based programs in a community setting to encourage cross-cultural exchange. City of Asylum anchors neighborhood economic development by transforming blighted properties into homes for these programs and energizing public spaces through public art with text-based components. The organization also partners with Phoneme Media to publish works by exiled writers in the program and stocks the Library of America.

Published Jan 27, 2017   Copyright 2017 Jessie Chaffee

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