Pittsburgh’s White Whale Bookstore celebrated its five-year anniversary on October 15 with something special: the grand opening of its newly expanded space. White Whale now additionally occupies the adjacent storefront of its building, which doubles the store’s space to roughly 3000 square feet and allows room for a still-in-the-works café. New floor-to-ceiling shelves, seating, counter space, wall murals indoors and out, a cash wrap refreshed with custom logo wallpaper, window art, and a neon whale decoration are all part of the growth spurt.
“We had been talking about expanding for a little while,” said Jill Yeomans, who co-owns White Whale with her husband, Adlai. “We felt like we had maximized our current space and we were looking for how we could grow the business in other ways.” The initial idea was to open a second location, but then the pandemic hit and “we put all that on ice,” Jill Yeomans said, noting, “we didn’t know if we would even be able to stay in business.”
In fact, White Whale had a reasonably good year during the pandemic, and the store was approached about a second location. Though that plan fell through, “we had done all the background research and we were primed and ready,” Jill Yeomans said. “Our landlord had been working on this building for nearly two years preparing to put the neighboring space on the retail market and he let us have the first shot at it. The timing just really worked out.”
There are two separate storefront entrances to White Whale, and inside, customers can flow between the spaces through a doorway. The store is partnering with T.J. Fairchild, co-owner and founder of local company Commonplace Coffee, for the café. “We already scored our espresso machine, so we are committed,” said White Whale co-owner Adlai Yeomans. The project is progressing, but some equipment is being held up because the parts are sourced outside the U.S., and other details are still being finalized.
With the advent of White Whale’s new, larger shelving units, “we’re able to give the books a bit more breathing room, and we expanded a couple of sections and added some we didn’t have before,” Jill Yeomans said. The Social Science section doubled in size, for example, and several genre sections, as well as a Growth section featuring books on relationships, self-help, and trauma, have been added. The ability to put more books face-out throughout the store is a welcome bonus. “You want to be able to promote the books that you love and have people see them, and lift up writers,” Jill Yeomans said.
Both of the Yeomanses pointed to other recent developments at the store that have accompanied the expansion. Most notably, the number of staffers, or “Whale podders” as they are fondly called, has increased significantly. “During the pandemic we were able to be proactive on ways of growing the business by selling online and shifting to online events,” said Adlai Yeomans. But as a small indie bookstore, “We’ve never not been in grit mode,” he added. During the worst moments of the pandemic, Jill and Adlai packed and shipped orders from the spare bedroom of their home while Jill was expecting the couple’s second child, and the store’s full-time events director Anna Claire Weber helped with orders and lined up the slate of virtual author appearances and programs.
Now, in addition to the Yeomans and Weber, White Whale has hired another full-time employee, Anne Marie Ellison, as marketing and communications manager, and also has a roster of eight part time booksellers. “It’s great to have staff,” Jill Yeomans said. “They are very helpful and smart, and each new person that joins our team is bringing a new lens to how we can engage with the community.”
White Whale has adopted a new point-of-sale system, too. “Because of the ways in which our business grew during the pandemic, particularly with online sales, the system we had wasn’t robust enough,” Jill Yeomans said. “We switched to Bookmanager, which could integrate our website,” a change that makes tracking inventory easier and more accurate.
Jill Yeomans is especially pleased with how the store has been able to incorporate art and design into the space. “Artists are such a big part of the community,” she said. “I wanted to make the space itself more beautiful and when we took out loans and got money to expand, we budgeted for art.”
Local artists were eager to participate. Atiya Jones created her original concept drawings in white on the windows; Brooke Barker, author/illustrator of bestselling Sad Animal Facts, (Macmillan/Flatiron, 2016) painted a mural in the store’s children’s section; Commonwealth Press, and graphic designer Nick Caruso have created and produced the store logo, merchandise designs, and custom wallpaper, among other items. And, back in June, local artist Brian Gonnella was commissioned to paint a mural on one of the building’s side walls. According to Jill Yeomans, including all of this art in the store’s transformation was essential to “making the space feel connected to the community on the inside and outside.”
Looking ahead to the holiday season, White Whale’s owners feel prepared. “I’ve gone a little harder on ordering, but that’s also by virtue of us expanding a lot,” Adlai Yeomans said. “Some books are going to run out and that’s out of our control. But as a bookstore and as booksellers, what we can do is if they [publishers, distributors] don’t have that specific book you’re looking for, we can connect you to another book. We don’t want to handle this as a problem that doesn’t have an answer. It’s kind of an exciting challenge, honestly.”
With five years now in the books, the Yeomans are excited for White Whale’s next chapter. “I feel like in general, in 2020 and 2021, people want community spaces because a lot of that has been taken away,” Adlai Yeomans noted. “This is a retail endeavor, but it also functions as that kind of space. People rallied around us because we try to do right by the writers in town and our community. It’s not lip service. We really do.”
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