Sarah Pishko – Bookseller

PRIVATELY SPEAKING

by Kim O’Brien Root
photograph by Stephen Katz


The owner of a bookstore is bound to have a favorite book, right?

Not Sarah Pishko.

That’s not to say she doesn’t read. Because she does – a lot. Sometimes more than one book at once. There are stacks of books on her desk at work, by her bed at home, even in her car.

But favorites? Well, when you’ve run your own bookstore for 30 years – as Pishko has with downtown Norfolk’s Prince Books – you’re surrounded by books. You live, work and breathe books.

Picking a favorite is not so easy.

Picking a book, any book, to read is not so simple, either. Not when you have customers and staff and book representatives and maybe even your neighbor suggesting titles.

“It’s very difficult,” says Pishko, the 53-year-old owner of Prince Books, which sits at the corner of Main Street and Martin’s Lane. “I’m pulled in all angles. It’s hard for me to focus on one.”

Pishko was in her early 20s when she opened the bookstore two locations ago with a partner. Eventually she bought out her partner, and has run Prince Books – Prince is her maiden name – on her own since 1988. It’s been at its current location since 1994 and shares a space with the Lizard Cafe, which is owned by her brother Bill and his wife, Amy.

In that time, the independent bookshop has withstood challenges from technology as well as competition: First from big-box bookstores Borders and Barnes & Noble, and now from online sellers such as Amazon.

Customers’ names and faces change, but Prince’s share one attribute: loyalty. They’re the ones willing to wait a few days for her to order a book that she might not have in her 10,000-book inventory. They’re the ones who come to the book signings and poetry readings or just, simply, to say hello.

“We’ve had a lot of customers we’ve had forever,” Pishko says. “They’re such good customers, I consider them friends.”

To choose the books that line the shelves of this airy bookstore, Pishko’s antennae are always up. She’s constantly asked to read this book or that book, but when she picks one, it’d better be good.

If it’s not, if the writing doesn’t flow and the subject doesn’t hold her interest, she probably won’t finish it. She tends to read newer books – all the better for her bookstore – and she generally doesn’t read more than one or two by the same author. She doesn’t re-read books, either.

She reads fiction and nonfiction. Memoirs and short stories. Big-name authors and those with ties to Virginia.

As a young child, Pishko favored “Harriet the Spy.” As a teenager, it was “The Outsiders,” written by S.E. Hinton and later made into a movie. Right now, if she had to pick a favorite, it might be William Styron’s “A Tidewater Morning,” three novellas rooted in his Newport News upbringing. That book, she said, although nearly 20 years old, was a treat to read because of its beautiful writing.

As you might expect of a bookstore owner, books fill her Norfolk home, which she shares with husband Bernard, Norfolk’s city attorney (their three kids are grown). She’s in a book group but can’t always keep up. She has an iPad but doesn’t use it to read books.

“I spent my whole day at a screen, and I like to retreat to the book book,” she says. “A real book.”