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Literati story continues to unfold

Marlene Lacasse/Daily
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By Noah Cohen, Daily Arts Writer
Published September 5, 2013

On the corner of Fourth Street and Washington Avenue, next door to Amadeus and two doors down from Arbor Brewing Company, a new bookstore came to life this past spring. This bookstore, Literati, is my new favorite protagonist in a story that’s been going on in Ann Arbor for a long time. A story that, with a bit of legwork from its readership, won’t be ending any time soon.

The Ann Arbor native always used to meet at Borders, which was our home base. A2 kids were hard-wired to meet up at bookstores. Walking downtown without a destination in mind, you would end up inside one or another. You didn’t have to be a reader-type; book places were community places, and the physical presence of books has always been part and parcel to that sense of community.

Even on dates, since I never had a car, I’d just say, “Meet me in Borders; I’ll be in the young adult section.” That was what downtown meant — Borders, Shaman Drum, Michigan Book & Supply, Dawn Treader, Vault of Midnight, David’s Bookshop and the Ann Arbor Public Library. Not a coffee shop nor a park; not a pub nor an arcade. We had those, but they couldn’t be home base. They didn’t have the magic gravity.

If you’re like me, you’re tired of hearing about eReaders supplanting paperbacks. You walk through the Diag and see kids down on the grass in their hippie-casual, intent on thin digital screens, and it’s jarring. Not in a “get off my lawn, you damn kids” sort of way; it’s just weird to me, and it’s not as warm. Will the new class of literati have piles of books in their room like I did?

Economics is a strong lifestyle bully, but I had always thought of physical book places as especially resilient somehow — forts against harsh realities. Book culture was a way out if you needed a way out and a way in if you needed a way in. But bookstores couldn’t protect themselves the way they protected me. Four of the seven aforementioned stores are now gone.

A passion for books

Against these odds, Hilary and Michael Gustafson made their way into the market. They were engaged in 2011, and that’s when their idea for a bookstore crystallized.

“We just said, ‘we should go for this,’ ” Michael said, grinning.

Michael was a freelance sports writer. Hilary, disillusioned with political consulting, took to publishing in Brooklyn as an independent sales representative at Simon & Schuster.

“She’s always been passionate about books, and I’ve always been passionate about writing,” Michael said. “That’s how we found our commonality: through the love of written words — different aspects of the same entity.”

“That’s how we began our courtship,” Michael said, “sending each other books and letters and journals.”

“At first, we read very different things,” Hilary said, “which was fun in the beginning, because we would trade books. He read tons of Vonnegut ... lots of sports writing. His first recommendation to me was the Harry Potter books, so I read them and loved them. And then I had him read ‘Too Loud a Solitude.’ It’s a Czech book; I studied abroad in Prague, and it’s just really beautiful.”

“Now that we’ve read each other’s favorites, we’re agreeing more about authors,” she said.

But the manner with which she reads continues to boggle Michael’s mind. Hilary joked that she sometimes reads the last page of a book before she gets to the end.

I asked Michael whether he thought it might be better not to have any expectations at all.

“Hilary’s answer might be much different than mine,” he said immediately. But for him, “All their hope, it fires me up. It gets me going.”

He acknowledged differing opinions on the future of the bookstore. As Michael explained, the store is attracting support from other businesses in the community.

Business from scratch

Two months after making the hitherto bravest decision of their lives, and amid the chaos that accompanies opening a small business, the two married on the first of June, on the edge of Ann Arbor.

“It’s funny,” Michael said. “We talked to the owners of Sweetwaters (Coffee and Tea),” the Ann Arbor café chain. “They’re a married couple, and they run Sweetwaters together. So we went to them a month ago, to ask advice about how they work together as a married couple who run a business.”

From this, they came up with a system to compartmentalize work and play. “We have our work relationship and then we have our personal relationship,” Michael said. “When we were working at our apartment, we really had to make rules. Like, no talking about Literati after midnight, because we’d go crazy.”

Starting a small business from scratch gets to both of them. When I talk to each of them alone, they each worry about how the other is holding up.

“Hilary had a 100-degree fever the day before we opened,” Michael said. “But we couldn’t change course. She had to be here, because she’s the book lady. She knows the computer; she knows everything. So that was long days for her.”

“I think just putting everything in perspective,” Hilary said. “I have to remind myself that we’re so lucky to be here and to be embraced by the community; I had to remind myself of that in college a lot — that I’m lucky to be in college and have the freedom to be studying and to do all of these wonderful things. When I think back on it now, I wish I had taken more time to appreciate how lucky that was.”

“So just putting things in perspective as much as I can. It’s so easy to get wound up in the everyday and get freaked out by all the deadlines and papers and bills. You gotta take a moment to just say, ‘this is a really cool thing.’ ”

Continuing to expand

When I asked them what stresses them out the most, they seemed fearlessly unfazed by the passing of Borders.

“Borders number one was 41,000 square feet. We are 2,600, which is just a fraction. So we hope that downtown Ann Arbor can support that,” Michael said.

Later, Hilary explains their philosophy more organically, “We can’t beat Borders, but at the same time, people talk to each other about what excites them, and I think the things that people get excited about will grow here, and we’ll expand, and things’ll grow.”

They stress over what they have control over. Michael described one technical difficulty: “We ran out of receipt paper, which is needed when you are running a business. Of all the details that were floating around in our heads, we didn’t think there would be a limited amount of receipt paper! So I sprinted to Office Depot.”

The biggest technical thing, for any bookstore, is choosing what books to stock. With her experience as a sales rep, Hilary handles most of this load.

“A lot of our inspiration and business model is Greenlight,” Michael said of an independent bookstore that Hilary worked at in Brooklyn. “When we first started playing around with opening a bookstore, Hilary hadn’t worked in a bookstore yet. We thought maybe we should work in a bookstore first to make sure it’s something we want to do.”

When I asked Hilary how it’s done, she outlined the basics of bookstore management. “I have sales reps that rep all of the publishers, which is what I used to do. They have a list of a thousand titles, of which you take 100, and they tell you which ones they think might be worth taking, and you can pick them out yourself from there. They have author history; they have review attention — if they’re going to be on NPR; if they’re going to be on Rachel Maddow.”

“We have 11,000 units. So that’s 7,700 titles. We have about 1,000 with multiples. There’s 3,172 units of 986 titles. So we have about 8,000 one-copy books,” Hilary said.

Hilary also explained that the store shifts its inventory based on the interest of its staff.

“They have the hugest impact on what the store is,” Hilary said. “One of our staff members is really into philosophy, so I said, ‘Just make a list and I’ll go through it!’ I don’t really read philosophy, but I’m really glad that’s becoming part of our store.”

Realism and idealism

Michael summed up the staff as follows: seven starters, three former Borders employees, a former Shaman Drum employee, two MFA poetry graduates and the executive director of the Great Lakes Booksellers Association.

“Everyone has brought their own knowledge,” Hilary said. “Jill has brought some real parenting knowledge. Poetry, obviously, we have our two poetry guys. John really knows philosophy and Deb’s really into social politics. Michael’s all about environmentalism; it’s really great.”

The shelves in Literati were bought from what was left of Borders. They purchased them the day before the store went into demo.

“It was like a Ghost Town,” Michael said. “We thought it would be really cool to repurpose these iconic pieces.”

The typewriter in the display case at the register, a 1930s Smith-Corona, belonged to Michael’s grandfather. The typewriter is where Literati got its black-and-white checkerboard theme.

Michael emphasized how they’ve tried to keep all the store supplies local, or at least domestic. The bookmarks and bags posed a particular challenge.

“Somehow we need to encourage people to use their own bags, because we don’t philosophically agree with the printing of all this, so we wanted a 100-percent recyclable paper bag without heavy use of dye, so we’re hand-stamping all the bags,” Michael explained. “See, five years ago, I created a stupid little Facebook group that said, you know, ‘ban plastic bags.’ I can’t go ahead and offer plastic bags. That would just drive me nuts.”

Literati tries to compromise between realism and idealism, between providing sanctuary for the quiet relics of an evolving literary culture and acting as a tiny concert hall for young slam poets from The Neutral Zone (Ann Arbor’s teen center).

“I think it will bring people from the community together,” Hilary said. “From a bunch of different backgrounds — I think it’ll be a melting point, so we expect to have people linger.”

Beyond the books

In the first two months of Literati’s existence, it had six events. Hilary lists what they’ve hosted so far: live music, authors, story time, a woman who had walked the shores of all of the great lakes.

Literati aspires to be a community epicenter, as Borders was.

“The communication that happens around books is … if bookstores go under, that communication is lost, and you will never get that whimsy again; you will never get that community feel,” Michael said.

It’s part of the reason Michael and Hilary committed to a ship so many people said was sinking: They felt like there’s something about the ship itself that deserves saving.

“Strangers coming together around books is exactly why we wanted to be here. To see it happen so immediately has been wonderful,” Hilary said.

Michael described watching a pair of people in the store make a pact to start pickling because they were looking at a pickling book.

“I don’t know if they bought the book or not, but it doesn’t really matter,” Michael said. “Those types of interactions are lost if you download your books by yourself in your room.”

“In a perfect world, our profits would increase and we would buy this building. … In a perfect world we would live nearby and walk to the bookstore,” Michael said. “And we would be here all day, and we would have full time employees. Oh yeah, this is the dream.”

The young couple talks about their dream like storybook protagonists. Whether the story goes well depends on whether Ann Arbor keeps reading.

Literati will be providing the Daily with advance copies of books for future reviews.This article was assigned and written before the partnership began and is in no way affected by the professional arrangement.


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