eQuipBooks on Franklin Avenue in Aliquippa is a social enterprise whose mission is to provide job training and employment to residents, operate as an independent retail bookstore, and develop a business model leveraging local and global commerce to create sustainable community and economic development in Rust Belt towns.
ALIQUIPPA — Billy Joel bangs out “Piano Man” to jump-start Helen Yi’s day. She works behind a counter cataloging books as she waits for customers. Morning sunlight streams through large picture windows flooding the bookstore with illumination.
But the radiant orb’s not the only source of enlightenment at eQuipBooks, a somewhat incongruous neighbor on a residential stretch of Franklin Avenue, a portal to the city’s commercial district.
Daniel Rossi-Keen, co-owner, sees his venture as a social enterprise whose mission is to provide job training and employment to Aliquippa residents, operate as an independent retail bookstore – he says it’s the last of its kind in Beaver County – which also is a site of community enrichment, and develop a business model leveraging local and global commerce to create sustainable community and economic development in Rust Belt towns.
In hindsight, Rossi-Keen admits his business would be more lucrative in trendier, high-trafficked retail spots like Sewickley, Squirrel Hill or Shadyside, but said he’s never been in the red since he started operations in Aliquippa, first online in 2011, and then expanded in 2014 to include the brick-and-mortar store.
“You don’t stumble onto the bookstore because of our location,” he said. “If we had to do it again we wouldn’t probably just plant a bookstore, we would plant three or four different things or at least plant ourselves next to three or four different things.”
Here, in a former auto parts store, one can find hard- and soft-cover books at bargain prices of $4 and $3, respectively, along with CDs, VHS tapes, records and audiobooks. Everything is neatly organized alphabetically by subject on tables covered in black cloth or six- or seven-shelf bookcases that frame the walls.
There are books on sports and fitness, Christian interest, self-help, do-it-yourself, health, history, academic literature, sci-fi, social sciences, biographies, travel and a catch-all “everything else.”
’Motif of redemption’
Rossi-Keen’s been a bibliophile all his life. Originally from Clearfield County, he grew up devouring Hardy Boys books, a children’s mystery series. He’d often find himself in trouble at school where he’d be engrossed reading novels instead of assigned course work and “have my books taken away,” he said.
As a professor at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla. – a liberal arts school about 40 minutes north of Orlando – he taught college kids communication and the art of persuasive speaking and writing.
One day a glib salesman used his own persuasive power to convince Rossi-Keen to part with some of his scholarly, esoteric textbooks.
“I handed him a stack of stuff 10-books deep and he handed me back three $100 bills,” said Rossi-Keen, amazed at the profitability in used books.
“I realized pretty quickly there was something there.”
That launched a side hustle in 2008, originally intended to earn enough money to buy a boat.
“So I started figuring out how to sell stuff online. Before too long, we had our house filled with books,” he said, and had his four children helping, along with some university students, all working out of his basement.
Within a few months, he’d sold several hundred books and estimated he’d “probably made a few thousand dollars or more at that point.”
A few years later, while still teaching, he and his brother founded Panoptic Media, an e-commerce business that streamlined the process of buying books and selling them online.
And then he had a personal awakening.
“I was teaching and researching about hope and how hope embodies itself in community life, and my kids were growing up and they didn’t know their grandparents,” he said.
His wife, Pamela Rossi-Keen, grew up in Raccoon Township.
“That was a really strange juxtaposition between my professional identity and the way that was playing out in the life of my family,” he said.
In 2011, they moved first to Center Township, and later to Aliquippa, where they bought and renovated a house.
That’s when Rossi-Keen met John Jordan, a Georgia native, who moved to Aliquippa a few years earlier to help a college friend start Aliquippa Impact, a non-profit, youth-development organization.
“John and I met through a mutual friend,” Rossi-Keen said, and together launched the book-selling enterprise.
“We’ve been working on this thing pretty lockstep since 2011,” said Rossi-Keen. “He’s been as integral to this as anybody – probably more integral. At the beginning of this year, we started a co-ownership arrangement.”
Again, it began as a basement operation out of Rossi-Keen’s home until they rented the building on Franklin Avenue.
They negotiated with the owner and said they would clean up and renovate the building in exchange for three months of rent – “which amounted to not very much money,” said Rossi-Keen.
“It took us 18 months to renovate the building,” he said – stripping everything to bare components — “and many more months of rent for free. We knew in order to be able to do the kind of principled business development we wanted to do in a community that had been disinvested in we were going to have to pony up some resources. So, I remember John and I early on kind of talking about ‘if we put all this money into renovating a building that we don’t own are we OK with that?’…We intended very deliberately to reclaim what was here rather than to replace it.”
Reclamation parallels the pair’s mission.
“There’s a motif of redemption in all of the work that we do – there aspires to be,” said Rossi-Keen. “I think it’s a really important lesson for communities. We live in a culture that quickly wants to move on to the next thing. I don’t care if it’s Aliquippa, if it’s Beaver Falls, Rochester. We have amazing history. We have beautiful infrastructures. We’ve got the guts of some world-class cities right in our backyard, and if we too quickly move beyond that we’re going to miss out on what makes us a place that we all love. And so this building was an example of that and there are many, many, many more.”
In the past six years, eQuipBooks has employed more than 20 city youths — some during summer, others during the school year — through a partnership with Job Training for Beaver County.
“We feel we’ve given meaningful work and job training to youth,” Jordan said, adding the business employs “over 10 regular employees as well.”
“We’ve written over 1,000 paychecks in the local economy since launching,” Rossi-Keen said, “which on one hand is a very modest contribution. On the other hand, we’re one of the more stable startups in the region.”
Asked about eQuipBooks’ name, Jordan said, “We’re glad you like it.”
Not everyone gets the portmanteau.
“It’s ‘Quip’ for Aliquippa; ‘e’ because we sell online and we sell here in the store, but it has lead many people to think we sell computer things or computer parts or we only sell computer books,” Jordan said. “So if we had a focus group, we probably would have shied away from the name.”
Any confusion aside, eQuipBooks is doing OK – the majority of business online.
“The last time I looked meaningfully, better than 90 percent of our revenue came from online sales,” Rossi-Keen said.
Online inventory is approximately 19,000 titles; on-shelf inventory approximately 10,000.
“We’re not bringing thousands of people a month here, but we’re bringing in — I don’t know – a 100 customers a month, something like that,” said Rossi-Keen.
People still like to visit a bookstore “to look around,” he said.
“Selling online just opens you up to a global audience,” Jordan said. “That’s why that side of the business is so much bigger because nobody from Washington State’s going to be coming into the bookstore today, but they can buy our books online today.”
Early on, Rossi-Keen said eQuipBooks’ tagline was “rethinking what business can do” and that’s how independent bookstores like theirs have survived giants like Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
“Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon) and I are never going to sit down for a cup of coffee, right?” said Rossi-Keen. “Jeff Bezos and I are never going to dig through old boxes of books together and talk about history. Jeff Bezos and I are never going to smell and feel and touch books together.
“All these sorts of things that are so endemic to the life of Beaver County — our history, our heritage, our community, our sense of the past, our desire to be living life together.
“Those are the competitive advantages of a place like this — at least one of the competitive advantages — so I think those bookstores, those independent bookstores, that have thrived, have been able to capture the hearts of their customers with things that are dying that we want to preserve.”
Jordan and Rossi-Keen call themselves “sophisticated scavengers” doing their best to curate a variety of titles people want.
“One of our competitive advantages is that we are willing to sift through things that other people have deemed of less value,” Rossi-Keen said. “We have a pretty extensive network of relationships with many libraries both in Beaver and Allegheny counties, wholesalers, auction houses, schools, nonprofits, churches — basically anybody you could imagine that would come into a pile of books. This includes private estates.”
Employees use software to “find things that remain valuable,” which are sold online or repurposed for the retail store. Some books are reclaimed and turned into art pieces.
During the novel coronavirus pandemic, online sales increased because “people were stuck at home buying more stuff,” Jordan said, including books.
Customers can sell, donate or trade books for store credit.
But Rossi-Keen does not want “anything that would make my grandma blush” or damages, moldy books.
“That’s not helping anybody,” he said.
As people look toward the future of Beaver County, Rossi-Keen said we need to think about retail as part of that future and become more sophisticated in understanding and developing business ecosystems, not just small-business concepts.
“Beaver is a great example of that,” he said. “There are things thriving in Beaver that would never thrive anywhere else in our county right now. We’ve got to get more thoughtful about multiple, strategic advantages that can co-exist in one space.”
As “crazy” as it was to start an independent bookstore on Franklin Avenue in 2011, Rossi-Keen said eQuipBooks “has been in the black since Day One. That’s something that is worth reminding people. Nobody is getting rich at this place. It has sustained a number of jobs, but there is a viable business model here and we’ve proven that for almost a decade.”