For Eric Ackland, it all really began with love.
Ackland, the owner of Amazing Books and Records, was living alone in New York. He was laid off for the first time and slowly rebuilding a freelance copywriting business, when he received a message from a divorced woman in Pittsburgh with three children. She had seen his profile on an Orthodox Jewish dating site he had joined but that he hadn’t thought about in a long time.
The two began corresponding and Ackland was soon visiting the Steel City and getting to know his future wife, Tzipora, and her children. As their relationship deepened, Ackland wanted to get engaged but was worried about his ability to support his would-be family.
“I had no idea how to pull this off,” Ackland said. “If anyone ever needed a nice Jewish boy to bring home the kosher bacon, it was her. She blew my mind because she said, ‘I was raised to believe that livelihood comes from Hashem; if you’re the right guy, I’m sure God will provide.’”
Then, in 2013, Ackland’s grandparents died, leaving him a small inheritance. When he happened to stop into Awesome Books, a pop-up bookstore on Liberty Avenue downtown, the owners mentioned they were trying to sell the store and its sister location on Penn Avenue in Garfield. Ackland was intrigued, but hesitant to pursue it.
He mentioned the store to Tzipora, to whom he was now engaged. She pushed him in the right direction, Ackland said; he bought both the downtown store and the inventory in the East End location, and Amazing Books and Records was born — at least in concept.
Because he would be closed during Shabbat, Ackland wanted to move the business to Squirrel Hill. He began searching for locations, with a focus on Forbes Avenue. He couldn’t find anything suitable there at the time, but soon found his current location, next to Pinsker’s Books & Judaica on Murray Avenue.
Next month, though, Ackland will be moving Amazing Books and Records. He finally found a location at 5858 Forbes Ave., in the block he originally targeted when he bought the business.
The new space, previously occupied by the consignment shop Avalon Exchange, is more than two times the size of his current store. The added space will allow him to display books he has had to keep in storage in the basement, and perhaps realize a few other ideas on his wish list.
Since opening his Squirrel Hill location in 2014, Ackland has wanted to host a writers’ workshop, but lack of time and space prevented him from doing that.
“At the new location, I thought I could tear out the walls where the dressing rooms are and have space for a 12- to 15-person classroom,” he said. “When I was showing the space to my wife, she said, ‘You know it’s COVID time. No one is going to want to come in for classes. But if you leave the stalls, you could have socially distanced classes.’ I thought, ‘That’s a great idea,’ so, I’m leaving the stalls.”
“That’s for the future, though,” Ackland said. For now, he is working on plans to move the store, shelf by shelf, from its current location without having to close.
Ackland has spent the last six years reconfiguring his business and working 70 hours a week to ensure his business stays afloat. He still has a second shop downtown and has experimented with locations in the South Side and Oakland, both of which he eventually closed.
One business strategy that has been successful, he said, is his “buy three books, get one free” concept.
“It’s increased the average purchase by 30%,” Ackland said. “People really stretch to buy the third book so they can get the fourth book free.”
Ackland was so pleased with the results he began offering the same sort of deal online as a “Lit Love Box” subscription service. Subscribers tell Ackland which authors they are interested in and he puts together a box of books. Buyers essentially receive a free book with each box sent.
The service has helped keep the store in business during the pandemic when shoppers were forced to stay home or were hesitant to visit stores.
As Ackland expands his business and grows his family, which now includes five children, he is convinced his wife was right all those years ago when she said, “If you’re the right guy, I’m sure Hashem will provide.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.