Local Stores Open, Find Their Niche

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – In a retail landscape that is dominated by big box stores and even bigger online retailers, the local shopkeeper must find a niche.

Doing just that are the owners of four stores that recently opened in the Mahoning Valley.

But a niche isn’t always enough. Shopkeepers must also know the strategies of the behemoths in their industry and do them one better.

That’s what Leana’s Books and More is doing.

In the age of Amazon and Barnes & Noble, locally-owned bricks and mortar booksellers haven’t been opening in years. Yet Leana’s opened its third store Nov. 7.

The new location, in the Rulli Brothers plaza on Kirk Road in Austintown, joins the original site in Shenango Valley Mall in Hermitage, Pa., and one at the Grove City, Pa., factory outlets. All are owned by Vince and Leana Hillard.

The spacious new store is divided into new releases and bargain books. Customers can also use the Leana’s website, LeanasBooks.com, to order new books, and have them  shipped for free to the store, where they can pick them up.

“We have access to up to 10 million titles,” says Vince Hillard.

All new books sold in-store or online by Leana’s come with a 20% discount; all bargain books are sold at a 70% discount.

It’s part of a strategy the Hillards borrowed from their much-bigger competitors.

“If a book is selling well, then all the more Amazon will discount it,” Hillard says, “because they know that’s mainly what [the local book shop is] going to sell. It puts local shops out of business. They make their money from what they call ‘the long tail’ [as illustrated by a sales graph]. If there are 10,000 books that are the top sellers, there are millions of others that aren’t and they know we won’t be able [to stock them], so they make their money on them.”

Hillard says two can play at that game. “I put 10 million books on sale at 20% off,” he says.

Which is not to say that his stores aren’t fully stocked for those who want to browse and make purchases on the spot.

The new store is well-stocked with everything from fiction to nonfiction, biographies, self-help, children’s books and everything in-between.

More inventory is arriving constantly, although the supply chain squeeze it taking its toll.

“It’s slow,” Hillard says. “That’s the problem we’re seeing this year.”

The supply slowdown is also playing havoc with book printers, he says, as is the labor shortage.

One thing that doesn’t worry Hillard are electronic reading devices.

“Back when Kindle was getting big, everybody said it would kill the book industry,” he says. “I knew differently. The electronic devices are not relaxing at all. And how do you interact with a child when reading a book to them? We knew [the printed book] wouldn’t die.”

Children’s books are always a big gift item, and Leana’s has hundreds in the bargain section.

The Hillards select the bargain books – which come from the unsold inventory of publishers and distributors – by using their own judgment. They arrive by the pallet load.

“Bargain books are a lot of fun,” Hillard says. “We get them cheap and get a big variety.”

Leana’s has space in a corner of the Austintown store for a coffee shop. The Hillards have made inquiries to local coffee shops who could operate a branch location there.

“I love this location, says Hillard, who is also a commercial real estate agent. “It’s in a neighborhood, plus it has the draw of having Rulli’s next door.

Hillard notes that there already are bookstores in Boardman and Niles, “so we put one between them.”

The Austintown Leana’s Books is open daily from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.


On a much smaller scale is Pop! Art Books Culture, a small used books store that opened in November at 6949 Market St. in Boardman.

Chris Duster has stacks of used paperback and hardback books at his new store, Pop! Art Books Culture, in Boardman.

The shelves at Pop! are stuffed with new and vintage books, as well as graphic novels and some comic books.

Owner Craig Duster, a Colorado native who worked at art galleries in Denver, also has local art for sale.

“We sell art and comics and all the things that make pop culture so vibrant,” says Duster, a former comic book dealer. “This store is a place where you can find the things you didn’t know you needed.”

Duster aims to lure customers with low prices.

His store is crammed with titles and arranged by genre with sections for fiction, mystery-thrillers, romance, hardcovers, science, new arrivals, vintage, business, children, biographies, history, young adult, cookbooks, fantasy and science fiction.

“The cool thing about used bookstores is, you walk in and you don’t know what you want but you see something that strikes your fancy and you get it at a good price,” Duster says.

“When the spine is creased on a book, you know somebody read it,” he continues. “If it’s dog-eared, it’s been loved.”

Pop! is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.


Nick Giancola has been selling home decor and gifts for years at his Spruce stores in Niles and Boardman. At his newest location, a temporary shop for the holiday season in downtown Youngstown, he also sells nostalgia.

The shop is in an old storefront space on the Phelps Street pedestrian walkway. It opened before Thanksgiving and will remain open daily until Dec. 19. This is the third year Giancola has had the downtown store.

Nick Giancola prepares a display at his pop-up Spruce store in downtown Youngstown. He also operates year-round stores in Niles and Boardman.

“It does well because people have memories of shopping downtown when they were little,” the McDonald native says. “We hear their stories. And there is a nostalgic feel of going into a store like this in downtown Youngstown and experiencing Christmas. We try to make the store very magical.”

In that, he has succeeded. The Youngstown store exudes the warmth of bygone days. It’s brimming with charming items that bring a sense of wonder.

The merchandise does not come from local artisans; it is all manufactured by holiday decor companies.

“How we display it plays into making the products feel comfortable and homey,” Giancola says.

The price range is wide but leaves no one out. “Part of our mission is staying affordable,” he says. “Everybody who walks in here has buying power. We are here for you to find something beautiful.”

Among the priciest items in the shop is a box-sized centerpiece that is a model of an old-style television set with an animated holiday scene in its window. It plays holiday songs and costs $400.

There are also much smaller versions of it for $75.

The original Spruce, 600 Robins Ave., Niles, opened in 2014. The Boardman site, in  Huntington Place Plaza on U.S. Route 224, opened in 2017.

Giancola has given thought to keeping the Youngstown location open year-round with rotating stock to reflect the seasons. But he says the retail landscape downtown will have to improve before he does.

“People want to get back to shopping downtown and this is our small contribution to it,” he says.

In any event, Giancola likes the downtown location. The throwback architecture of the room, with its wooden front window wall,  becomes part of the store’s décor and is well-suited to the nostalgia of the merchandise.

“When it comes to the holidays, everyone wants to remember,” he says.


The ultimate mom-and-pop shop might just be Mary Ann’s Homemade Chocolates in Columbiana.

The cozy store is on the ground floor of a 90-year-old house at 24 W. Salem St., where owner and chocolate maker Mary Ann Flesse and her husband, Bill, live and make their products.

Bill and Mary Ann Flesse stand behind the counter of Mary Ann’s Homemade Chocolates, which is on the ground floor of their home in Columbiana.

The store opened on the quiet side street in the summer of 2020. It’s just a few blocks north of downtown, with its antique and artisan shops, and it fits the vibe.

Shoppers enter the front door of the house and find themselves in a small storeroom where boxed assortments are displayed on shelves. They can also choose their own selection of chocolates from the display case, and pay by the pound.

The chocolates come in a variety of special shapes; Flesse even makes a “pizza slice” for Jab’s Pizza in Lake Milton. It’s sold at her shop and at Jab’s.

“I’ve been making chocolate since the early ’70s,” says Flesse, who also once had a cake business.

The Wellsville native who lived much of her life in Hubbard and her husband moved to Columbiana in 2015.

“We retired and got bored with retirement,” she says. “I said, ‘I have the recipes, let’s start a chocolate shop and see what we can do. Columbiana has no other chocolate or candy shop, so here we are.”

Mary Ann’s Homemade Chocolates keeps customers posted on its Facebook page, but most of its business comes from walk-up sales.

In addition to homemade chocolates, Mary Ann’s also sells chocolate-covered potato chips and pretzels, sugar-free and gluten-free items, and hard tack candy.

The store is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Pictured at top: Vince Hillard stands in the new Austintown location of Leana’s Books and More. Hillard and his wife, Leana, own the store.