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Staying on the page in the digital age

Allison Kruske/Daily
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By Andrew Schulman, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 4, 2012

Before Borders was an empty storefront, when it was still a kind of infinite book haven, Ann Arbor bookseller Gene Alloway would wander over to the franchise’s former flagship store on East Liberty from his small rare and used bookshop in Kerrytown. Sometimes, after shoving past book clubs, he would study the American history section, a strength of his own shop. Other times, when he merely felt like browsing, he might march upstairs past the puzzles by the checkout line and the e-book kiosk, and gaze at would-be customers doing homework at the coffee shop instead of buying books.

If Alloway grasped what most booksellers who were around during Borders’s heyday did — that the store was a shell of its former self — he also saw the inverse of his own shop. He saw that Wi-Fi and coffee distracted readers from shopping, as did e-books and trinkets, which could be bought elsewhere. So his shop, Motte & Bailey, would not have Wi-Fi or e-readers or coffee or puzzles or gourmet popcorn. In two weeks, it will celebrate its twelfth birthday.

Alloway is, after all, a traditionalist. At a time when local booksellers are sweeping the landscape for signs about the future of books and the economy, he still appraises old bookseller memoirs to learn how to sell books like his predecessors in the 1920s and 1930s.

Though not Ann Arbor’s only classical bookseller — other ones might also be apt to liken a book’s font to a waiter (it should be present but inconspicuous) — he is among the newest, and one of the most passionate.

“I want to be a bookseller,” he told me one afternoon last April, with gumption. “I want to sell all the best books, whether they’re new or used or rare.”

Goodbye digital, hello print

Like other booksellers in town, Alloway seems to have stumbled upon the profession. He grew up in Parsons, Kansas, in the late 1960s and 1970s, and spent much of his childhood in the town’s Carnegie Library. He was a prolific reader. By the age of 10, he was picking through the library’s adult section for books on Byzantine and general military history, though he hadn’t yet considered becoming a bookseller.

The itinerant path started at the University of Kansas. He studied classics, following his love of Byzantine history, but soon realized he could not pursue a career in the field due to his unfamiliarity with Greek language. The decision proved fortunate: With the books he studied for class, he and his roommate started a lending library out of their dorm room. More than an encouraging hobby, it was his first exercise in raising a collection of books people could care about.

“People were coming and lending our books anyway,” he said. “We figured we might as well keep track of it, give it a name.”

The dorm-room library was also in part what nudged him to graduate school at Emporia State University for his Master of Library Science in 1987, after he took a year off to make pizza in Miami, Okla. Upon graduating in 1989, he decided to join the librarian residency program at the University of Michigan, later flitting between the Art, Architecture & Engineering Library and Hatcher Graduate Library before settling into a digital librarian position at the School of Information.

Alloway stayed there for 17 years; years that have been perhaps the most formative in his development as a bookseller and advocate of the printed book. While he initially felt like he belonged, the longer he stayed, the more it seemed the library was betraying its responsibility to readers.

What he was witnessing at the time was the unsteady tug between digital technologies and print books. John Murphy, Alloway’s one-time partner in the bookshop and a former University librarian himself, said Alloway was often frustrated that the University discarded books once it digitized them.