Editor’s note: “Inside …” is a new series that will offer glimpses into Pitt places that are new, revamped or rarely visited by most people in the University community. If you have an idea for someplace we should look "inside," please email it to Marty Levine at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By MARTY LEVINE
The only Pitt office with a pool table — we’re betting — is the office of the University of Pittsburgh Press. The expanse of green felt sits right in the middle of the main room, in the North Point Breeze building that also houses the University archives and surplus property warehouse.
“There is a full set of billiard balls and a rack,” says Lesley A. Rains, the Press’ publicity person, and the cues “are around somewhere,” says Joel Coggins, art director, but “very rarely” have they actually played pool. The pool table came from right upstairs, in University surplus — a refugee from William Pitt Union? — when The Pitt Press simply needed a table. Today two sides are lined with books.
“Lined with books” is, in fact, a condition of the entire office, but especially the library down the hall, which contains first editions of all the works that the Pitt Press has ever printed, from small poetry paperbacks to mammoth illustrated guides to local flora, “apart from a few early titles that are hard to track down nowadays,” Coggins says.
As with all good old libraries — even though the Press only moved here in 2013 — it is equipped with a wooden ladder that slides across the shelves for access to their upper reaches.
Coggins hauls out a large 1947 volume of etchings of the Nationality Rooms in the Cathedral of Learning that shows some of the Press’ earliest color printing, and some even larger, more decorous tomes — the 1953 twin volumes of “Wildflowers of Western Pennsylvania & Upper Ohio Basin” with watercolor plates overlain with transparent “tip-ins” as protection.
One of the Press’ first publications is here too: a smallish hardback bound in a simple dark blue: “Through One-Hundred and Fifty Years,” a Pitt history from 1937 by Agnes Lynch Starrett. Some of the Press’ early books are slightly ragged along the outer edge of each page, a style called “deckled edges” that once signaled pages that had been sealed until cut by their first reader. You can see such deckled edges on some books today, but “from what I understand it is literally a belt sander” that re-creates the effect, Coggins says.
Some of the latest Press books are lying on another giant table (felt-free and pocket-less) at the library’s center. On the backs of these books are blurbs — words of praise from other authors. It’s Rains’ job to gather them. “It’s fun” to solicit the blurbs, she says, but adds: “It’s a lot of asking — nicely.”
The Press’ space is full of natural light, which “feels like a bit of a luxury,” Coggins says, especially compared to their former digs in the Eureka Building. The large space containing the pool table has many times hosted the annual Association of University Presses’ book jacket and journal show, most recently in 2019.
But not all the Press’ work takes place in this office. If you order a book from the Press, it will likely be shipped from a warehouse in Chicago shared by many university presses. The books themselves are printed everywhere from in-state to Canada, Italy and across Asia, “particularly for full-color or more illustration-heavy titles,” Coggins says, depending on each book’s needs and budget.
At the entrance to the office, visitors are greeted by three couches centering on a coffeetable and another line of books, displaying the most current Press offerings. You have to get past a security guard to get up the elevator and inside the office, but even this remote location has seen an unexpected visitor or three “adamant,” Coggins says, about promoting their manuscript, which they’re sure the Press will want to publish.
The Press does specialize in books of local and regional interest, but few books are chosen from authors bearing unsolicited prose, Rains says. The Pitt Press is a scholarly press, after all, so most of its acquisitions are academic, largely humanities-oriented titles, with lots of cross pollination between the faculty and editors here, Coggins explains. All titles go through peer review, read by outside scholars “blindly, for their value in the given field,” Coggins says.
The Press has grown in its 90 years “to fill needs … that aren’t always commercial concerns.” A good portion of the publications start out as research reflecting Pitt specialties, such as its very strong Latin American studies series over the last 50 years.
Still, the Press’ top seller — “Out of This Furnace: A Novel of Immigrant Labor in America” by Braddock native Thomas Bell — and some new titles are local in story and readers. The recently published “Kaufmann’s: The Family That Built Pittsburgh’s Famed Department Store” book and soon-to-appear “Donora Death Fog” by Andy McPhee (about a local killer pollution event) are geared to regional history fans. The Press also features local authors, from journalist Andrew Conte’s “Death of the Daily News: How Citizen Gatekeepers Can Save Local Journalism” to Pitt archivist Zachary Brodt’s “From the Steel City to the White City: Western Pennsylvania and the World’s Columbian Exposition.”
Other books of local interest are now being reissued – works on the Youghiogheny River, on Appalachian recipes and “Homestead: The Households of a Mill Town,” by Margaret Byington, from 1912, with a new forward by journalist Tom Waseleski. “You never know what’s going to stick or come back into relevance,” Coggins says.
People still judge a book by its cover, and the cover still helps sell the book, say Rains and Coggins. They show off one striking cover coming up, for “The Vortex: An Environmental History Of The Modern World,” by Frank Ueketter, with a roiling orange swirl on a teal background. When Rains sends out “The Vortex” for early reviews and those blurbs, “everyone is saying ‘That is a striking cover; I want to hear more about the book.’”
“It’s about grabbing attention and fairly and accurately representing a book,” Coggins says of his work designing the covers. His biggest challenge: creating “something that scales down to less than the size of a postage stamp on a cellphone screen.” Big type and high contrast colors are the order of the day.
Covers matter most, “but a snappy title can go a long way,” says Rains — which can be tough to devise in scholarly publishing, where every book seems to need a lengthy title and a lengthier subtitle.
But sometimes it really doesn’t matter — the main audience for an academic book is going to buy the book for the subject, regardless.
In another room some of the editors are talking about what to publish next — or where to have lunch. Who knows? This area of Pittsburgh, near the corner of South Braddock and Penn avenues, has improved much during the past few years, Coggins says, so he no longer misses the Oakland lunch choices so much. A coffee shop, a climbing gym and an Asian grocery are the latest additions.
Working in this spot, relatively remote from Oakland, Rains says, “is a fine way to still be part of the Pitt community. … We are working hard to make sure we are still connected.”
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-758-4859.
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