story by Matthew Benusa /photos by Matthew Glover
Pittsburgh’s newest bookstore doesn’t care to sell you books. The Cozy Corner Bookstore is here to give away the vibes.
Enter the store at 5879 Ellsworth Ave in Shadyside, and you’ll find two pairs of shoes by the front door. Light filters through the picture window facing the street and lands on a leafy monstera, a low table of featured books, and if you’re lucky, a playful tabby cat named Ishiguro. The owners of the shoes and the shop welcome you and tell you there are more books upstairs.
On the shelves, there are books and plants for sale, along with a self-serve tea and coffee corner. The proprietors, Mark Jay and Layla Zaina, bring distinct experience to the venture. Jay is a former employee of Amazing Books and Records in Squirrel Hill. Zaina is the plant expert.
“I’ve worked in nurseries and garden centers, so the plants I can really say that helped. Working at Dobra tea has influenced the tea choice,” Zaina said.
The books are carefully selected — the curation is not driven by BookScan data or the fluctuations of the first edition market, nor is it completely literary — it includes cookbooks, sports books, comics and manga. Still, it is clear there is a literary sensibility with titles as far ranging as William Blake’s “The Book of Thel,” Ruth Ozeki’s “A Tale For The Time Being,” and (in translation) Kurdish author Bachtyar Ali’s “The Last Pomegranate Tree.”
“We’re trying to include everybody,” Jay said.
Zaina said that they started the store with a book cart. “I would say the first day we did the book cart, it was all just like heavy literary fiction.” They stood in Oakland for 45 minutes and didn’t sell a thing.
Pittsburgh is littered with independents. There is City Books, Riverstone Books, Amazing Books and Records, Fungus Books and Records, White Whale Bookstore, Bottom Feeder Books, Tiny Bookstore, and many, many more. Rather than a sign the local economy wouldn’t support another bookstore, the pair took it as motivation to find their niche.
“To be perfectly honest, it was kind of like a happenstance,” Zaina said. “We got back from a book buying retreat, and we had adopted a cat. We were taking her to the vet, which is right next door, and when we were parking the car saw that this place was for lease. We called the landlord, and everything else happened very easily.”
Every other place they found fell through for one reason or another. “It just wasn’t working out, like things just like we’re not in alignment. And this was just, I mean — we moved in within the month, and then we opened within the same month,” Zaina said.
Ishiguro, who is named after the Nobel Prize winning author Kazuo Ishiguro, is well rewarded for helping Jay and Zaina find their space. “There are people who come in who have no interest in books,” Jay said.
Zaina added, “They walk in and say ‘Is the cat here today?’” Recently, Ishiguro has worked on a part-time basis, but you can find her lurking between the plants or watching National Geographic projected onto a wall.
So far in their two months of operation, The Cozy Corner Bookstore has no website. Their only web presence is their Instagram account, and the only smartphone or tablet they use is for inventory and transactions. “The books are almost secondary to the space,” Jay said, “we were looking for a place to exist in. Books are something we both love. We’re both overwhelmed by computers. It’s not even a moral thing, it’s a physical thing.”
Jay continued, “I grew up in New York, I’ve lived in Michigan, I’ve lived in California, I’ve spent some time living in a monastery, and I feel like this space is a hybrid of what a public space that people can go and can actually feel and can actually be nourishing to them, but we can actually pay rent.”
With plenty of open space in the store, Jay and Zaina plan to have a monthly book club. Their first choice is “The Last Pomegranate Tree.”
Between the cat, the plants, the books, and Jay’s and Zaina’s welcoming space and demeanor, the Cozy Corner Bookstore is trying to carve out a nook in Pittsburgh’s book culture. There are bookstores with plants, and there are bookstores with cafes, and there are bookstores with cats. But there are few bookstores that can capture them all and bottle it up, establishing a space dedicated to reading and community. The sales come second.