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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. Murphy recalled one instance in which a student approached Alloway at the library looking for magazines that showed the color schemes of rock bands in the 1980s. The magazines, however, were microfiched, meaning they were in black and white, and Alloway could not help her. He was furious.

Tom Nicely, a former University librarian and bookseller, told me that, for a time, the University would send books to Mexico, where a company would sever the spine, digitize the pages, and then dispose of them.

“It was, ‘digital is the new hammer and every library problem is a nail,’ ” Alloway told me. “There was just wave after wave after wave of it, and that was okay, but the hyperbole with each wave just got old.”

On too low a rung to alter the model — passed by, he said, by administrators who carried off their titles after slick digital projects — Alloway decided to maneuver, instead of fight, as he put it. In 2004, he pared down his hours at the library to attend more to his shop, which he opened in 2000 after four years as an online-only enterprise. Two years later, wholly convinced of the library’s misconduct, and determined to fight it, he committed full-time to the shop.

Sticking to his guns

Since parting with the University’s libraries six years ago, nearly all Alloway has done is fight the vision of books he was powerless to oppose while at the University. He wages the battle in his classic academic spirit: “What does the library become when you get rid of books and you just have terminals?” he asked with hands turned up when we spoke last month. Yet the battle has also touched off his anger and indignation.

Inside his bookshop, a warm pool of bookshelves that somehow feel homemade, Alloway flashed that ferocity when I asked him about the future of books, a game of educated guesswork that he clearly felt the library and other booksellers have given up too early.

“I am fully prepared to retire, drop dead right there, selling books,” he said, pointing to his cluttered desk in defiance. “A lot of people talk about digital books and the threat that digital books pose to them.”

His voice dimmed and his hands, which had darted here and there throughout the conversation, dropped to his sides. “And I think it’s more of somebody saying, ‘Digital books are a threat to you,’ and them saying, ‘They are? Oh my,’ instead of actually thinking about it.”

Alloway, it soon became evident, has thought about it. He has done so at a level far deeper than the booksellers who he said have retreated from the menace of Amazon. He does not sense much threat from the Internet retailer, digital books or even the advent of general online bookselling. In this capricious age of bookselling and occasional alarm-raising, he has been lucky enough to stay the course and advise other booksellers, as if dispensing common sense, that “if you keep doing what you do, you’ll be okay.”

When I asked Alloway where that self-assuredness comes from — that is, why he has such robust faith in a technology that, to some, seems to be plunging into the drain right behind the print newspaper — he slipped into his professorial robes again. After tracing the history of reading media from stone to electronic tablet, he concluded that the printed book has not yet been beaten as a medium.

“We are not there yet,” he summed up, referring to a possible era of reading commanded by digital technology. Without even a murmur of self-doubt, he added, “We are not even close to being there yet.”

But as much as he reveres the printed book as an artifact and criticizes the e-book as an alternative technology, Alloway’s confidence about staying the course and keeling over behind his desk does not seem to stem from his thoughts about the best technology. It derives instead from his style of bookselling.

While other storeowners are following Borders down the way of shortsightedness or otherwise trying to completely overhaul their shops, Alloway is returning to the classical principles of bookselling that buoyed his predecessors through even the Great Depression.

He is stocking his shop with more benches and chairs than any other store in town to attract readers, a fact he boasted to me the way a marathoner would announce his best time. He is experimenting with new selections and added a literature section between the time I first met him in April and our interview last month.

And he is poring over old bookseller memoirs, taking stock of even the smallest tips. Where other booksellers might find a chapter about the shipping of books stale, Alloway scraped it clean, taking stock of even the most miniscule tips.

Above all, though, in an era when used and rare booksellers may be losing customers to the Internet, he is cultivating lasting relationships with customers on the premise of putting the right book in their hands. After 12 years in the bookshop, Alloway is developing the ability to look at a book and instinctively know which customer to give it to.

“That’s the purpose of the bookstore in a lot of ways,” Murphy told me when we met at a restaurant in the shadow of a behemoth Barnes & Noble. “Yeah, it’s about making money to a degree. But that’s not the overriding concern. It’s more about passing on an intellectual heritage.”

Documenting the past

Among the intellectual heritages that Alloway has been most eager to pass on is the history of Ann Arbor’s booksellers; a past that, to him, records one of the most fascinating chapters of the history of books in the country. It is a heritage Alloway has been chasing for the last few years, at least informally, in the hopes of writing a book that will commemorate an era of this town’s history when bookselling was a tourist attraction.

In the early 1970s, Alloway explained to me when we first met, bookshops like Centicore Books, Bob Marshall’s and Wahr’s — shops that had thrived in Ann Arbor since the early twentieth century — all shuttered their doors within a few years of one another. Whether their collapses were due to the economy at the time, the old age of their owners or another set of factors, Alloway is not sure.

Yet the shops that replaced them inaugurated a new, thrilling era of bookselling in Ann Arbor. Community News Center, which had one of its two shops on the corner of South University Avenue and South Forest Avenue, became the go-to shop for magazines. Shaman Drum Bookshop, which closed in 2009, was a destination for books on history and poetry. Even Borders, famed for its great selection before it grew into a behemoth, had its own niche in scholarly and computer science books.

Those years between 1979, when Centicore Books became the last of the old generation to close, and 1992, when Borders was sold to Kmart, marked the golden age of bookselling in Ann Arbor’s history. At the time, more than 30 booksellers coexisted here and the town was so reputed for its books that outsiders from across the country would devote entire visits to survey Ann Arbor bookstores.

“That was really the age of independence,” Alloway said. “There was just a lot of diversity in the new book trade. It was a very vibrant and fruitful period … Everybody had a different take.”

Alloway told me that his book will attempt to chronicle the stories of the bookshops of that era for future generations of booksellers, in the same fashion that older memoirs guided him. He has been interviewing the owners of shops and their relatives and soon he will launch a website where customers of that time can share their memories.

Alloway said he wanted to preserve an era of the history of the book and of Ann Arbor that would otherwise be lost. Part of his motivation, he said, is that the owners of bookstores such as Centicore Books and Bob Marshall’s, now in their late 80s, will soon no longer be able to tell their stories. But more than that, the project is based on a hope that people here will remember how spirited the book culture once was and “value what’s left even more.”

“It can remind a town like Ann Arbor, which seems to be being taken over by chain stores, that each town is different,” he said. “Ann Arbor is not Royal Oak; Ann Arbor is not Lansing; Ann Arbor is not Kalamazoo or any of those other places.”

“The old days,” today

During my visit with Alloway last month, I asked him to recount how he had become a bookseller.

He began by recalling his childhood in Kansas, the freedom of living in a small town whose residents all knew one another. He remembered how he could stay at the library, or out and about in town, until late and his parents never wondered where he was or worried about his safety.

“It was one of those things where you could get on a bike at eleven o’clock, go out to eat with your friends, hang out all day in town or in the woods, and then come back for dinner,” he said wistfully. “And your mom didn’t worry about you,” he went on. “You were all right.”

As we were talking, a regular customer who looked to be of retirement age approached his desk with a book she intended to buy.

When she overheard Alloway discussing his childhood, she said, “Oh, yeah, those were the old days.”

Alloway rang her up, bid her farewell, and then watched her disappear into the crowd on the streets.


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