Novel Breads Co. specializes in literature and breads

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PICTURES OF KRISTY LOCKLIN

OWhen Covid-19 descended, Heather Sprague’s business started to pick up.

Novel Breads Co.an online sourdough micro-bakery with literature-inspired breads, got on the nerves of people who were craving baked goods and book recommendations.

“We were criticized at farmers markets,” says Sprague, a resident of Connoquenessing. “At that time, people felt safer to shop outside.”

With all the “dough” she made during the pandemic, in 2021 she opened a small shop in Mars, where she sells both the bread she bakes and the books she reads. Regular hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday.

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The bibliophile tackles about 40 tomes each year, consuming words like carbs. Sprague also runs the Novel Breads Eaters and Readers Book Club. A dozen members meet regularly to discuss food-themed memoirs, novels, children’s literature and poetry and, of course, to break bread.

After a career spent caring for adults with disabilities, Sprague started Novel Breads 5½ years ago to combine his baking hobby with his habit of reading.

All products are made with naturally grown sourdough, which undergoes a long fermentation process that adds layers of flavor and nutrition to the bread.

In two commercial kitchens separate from the storefront, Sprague bakes everything from honey brioche knots and rolls to bourbon bread and English muffins. They have a shelf life of about a week, but are best the first three days after taking them out of the oven.

“I haven’t always liked sourdough,” says Sprague. “It seemed like a lot of work. It’s like a baby; it needs to be fed throughout the day. When I finally settled here and tried a food blog, that’s what made me experiment with sourdough again.

She’s been using her original, ever-evolving sourdough starter for a decade. Her name is Pearl after a character from “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Pearl adds medium-strength acidity to the breads, which also include locally sourced ingredients, including spent grains from the surrounding area. City Brewing Co Stick.

Resize Novel3Sprague finds inspiration in books as well as the flavors of other foods and drinks. After enjoying a specialty cocktail at Mexican restaurant Emiliano, she decided to recreate it as an Orange Martini Bread.

The menu rotates on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. The latest creation is a toaster pastry filled with guava paste, an idea sparked by the novel “The Taste of Sugar” by Marisel Vera. The publication is sold alongside homemade pies and products such as sauces, fruit spreads and honey from regional suppliers.

The store is located in the Baumgartel Professional Building at 504 Pittsburgh St. Follow the painted steps along the breezeway to a side entrance. Once inside, the atmosphere is just as warm and aromatic as a freshly baked loaf of Christmas cookie bread. Sprague’s smile exudes the same kind of joy, and she’s always ready to discuss the latest page-turner.

His mother, Laurie Eckstein, is a professional seamstress and created the interior design, filling the small space with bright yellow and orange hues; a color palette that is also used in its handmade bread bags.

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On a windy November day, customers took refuge in the cozy shop to browse publications and products.

Shirley Litzinger, from the village of Boyers in Butler County, stopped on a whim while accompanying her husband to a doctor’s appointment in town. After 15 minutes, she approached the counter, several parcels in her arms.

“I have to get out of here,” she laughs, adding a loaf of Caribbean banana bread to the pile.

Moon’s Peggy Shaw says her husband doesn’t even like bread, but he gobbles up Sprague’s offerings.

In the future, Sprague hopes to expand into a larger facility with a kitchen so it can attract new customers with heavenly scents wafting from the windows and host classes, book clubs and community events.

Novel Breads Co. is already participating in the Neighbor’s breads. The initiative was launched in 2020 by the Midwest Artisan Grain Collaborative and expanded locally across Chatham University fight against hunger during the pandemic. When customers make a minimum donation of $8, Sprague will bake loaves and deliver them to food pantries in Evans City and Saxonburg each month.

“I want it to be a different shopping experience for people,” she says. “They don’t just get bread, they get bread with a story; bread with intention.

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