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New Ann Arbor bookstore fosters independent book scene

Marlene Lacasse/Daily

By John Bohn, Daily Community Culture Editor
Published September 5, 2013

In the basement, philosophy, history and science books line the shelves. Generally, a few tables are available for people looking to sit down and peruse a title. But tonight, rows of chairs and a microphone turn the downstairs of Literati Bookstore into a cozy performance space.

On this occasion, the readings are organized around Hobart Press, a local, independent publisher. Ann Arbor residents Aaron Burch and Elizabeth Ellen edit for Hobart, which comprises an online journal and some printed titles.

Burch walks to the front of the room to announce the first reader. To introduce a writer, he explains, he likes to play a song that reminds him of them. For the first reader, Mary Miller, he’s chosen “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” by Tom Petty. As he explains, Miller and Ellen are both fans of Petty and listened to him a lot during their most recent summer reading tour. And of course, Mary Miller and Mary Jane share the same first name. Miller walks to the mic as Burch plays the Tom Petty song on his iPhone. She then begins to read a short piece of flash fiction.

With the closing of Borders, the space for a general bookstore in Ann Arbor opened back up. On April 3, 2013, Literati opened its doors to fill that gap in the downtown community. But as an independent bookstore, Literati brings its own unique opportunities.

Hilary Gustafson, co-owner of Literati, does the buying. She works with a variety of distributors and publishers, some of which, like Consortium and Small Press Distribution, provide Gustafson with an array of alternative and indie press titles with which to stock the shelves of the store. However, Gustafson isn’t the only person who makes the decisions on stock. In addition to Gustafson, there is a team of workers all with previous experience in writing, literature and bookselling. Some came from Borders, others from Shaman Drum (another recently closed local book dealer) and some come from the University’s MFA poetry program.

“I allow them to be more involved in the buying process,” said Gustafson. “Having input from everybody on the team is something that Borders didn’t have, at least when it was corporate.”

From this collaborative process emerges a small node in the dizzying network of independent publishing. A brief look at the fiction section of any bookstore can make one queasy with a sense of not knowing what’s out there. Chances are, however, that even within that stock, a multitude of titles and authors has been edited out. And that’s where a store like Literati comes in. It provides authors, like Mary Miller, a chance to share their work.

“I started writing flash fiction probably when I was about 27 years old,” Miller said. “I joined a group called Zoetrope, which Francis Ford Coppola started. It’s just a free online writers workshop. I was living in a small town, and I didn’t really have access to other writers. So I just found people from all over the world through this writing workshop.”

Miller originally comes from Mississippi but now lives in Austin, Texas. Her collection of short stories, “Big World,” is published by Hobart Press and is the second printed text that Hobart produced. It was through Zoetrope that Miller and Ellen came to know one another.

“We’ve known each other for years just through the online community,” Miller said. “She started publishing her work online, and I started publishing online and we became fans of each other’s work.”

Shortly after Ellen and Burch had started their small books division of Hobart, Ellen asked Miller if she had enough stories for a collection.

“I said, ‘I don’t think so,’ ” Miller said. “And then I started putting things together because I never thought about writing stories in terms of a collection.”

That collection would become “Big World,” a final product that Miller and Hobart worked on and designed together. After publication, she and Ellen went on a bi-coastal tour doing readings in bars and independent bookstores.

“You know, I think I’ve pretty much only read at independent bookstores and bars,” Miller said. “Independent bookstores are much more supportive of independent presses and unknown writers. ... There’s a bookstore in Oxford, Mississippi called Square Books that’s been around forever. They’ve sold so many copies of my book, through word of mouth and recommending it to people.”

While much of the sales of “Big World” come from online shops such as Amazon and Powell’s Books, occasionally “Big World” can be found on the shelf or at a counter, like it can at Literati.

“When I went to Square Books at Oxford and saw a stack of them at the counter, even that was just really exciting,” Miller said. “And it’s exciting to go into a bookstore and sign their stock. If they have 15 books in there, to sit down with a pen and sign them. You feel like a real writer.”

Mary Miller finishes her reading. Then Burch introduces the second writer, Juliet Escoria, with a song by Ministry. After Escoria, Burch introduces Scott McClanahan with “Sweet Child of Mine.” Apparently McClanahan made a short video called “Sweet Ass O’ Mine” where he’s dancing to the song. McClanahan’s reading verges on the edge of performance art. The narrator of the story can’t help but break things. In frustration, he breaks a chair (“They don’t make them like they used to!”) and then accidentally kicks a hole in a wall, which he presumed was sturdier. All this time music is playing from various machines, one of which McClanahan stops by stomping on.

“I’m friends with both Aaron and Elizabeth,” McClanahan said. “We’ve known one another for years.”

While good friends with Hobart, McClanahan has also published with a few different groups such as Six Gallery in Pittsburgh, Lazy Fascist Press and Two Dollar Radio.

“I’ve always got to know these people personally,” McClanahan said.

After McClanahan finishes, Hobart brings out a cake to wish Escoria a happy birthday. The cake has a giant picture of Eminem on it. Earlier that day, Escoria, Ellen and her daughter went to Eight Mile Road to settle a bet on who was the biggest fan.

“I’m thinking of Gregory Corso for some reason,” McClanahan said. “He said, ‘The Beat Generation … that wasn’t a generation. That was like seven or eight friends.’ ”

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.