The sign, “Ann Arbor: A Book Lover’s Town,” is located on the corner of N. University and State St., right across the street from Walgreens. After pointing out the sign to a number of people in the course of the past week and a half, I realized that it hides: In its inert position and monochromic color scheme, “Ann Arbor: A Booklover’s Town” remains tucked away from prying, curious eyes. I picture students and workers hurrying past, their heads down, focused on their phones or their Airpods in, lost in Ariana Grande’s “NASA.” It’s an iterance of go, go, go. There’s not enough time to stop and observe. It makes sense. After all, they’re not tourists.
I remember standing right in front of that sign, donned in a charcoal coat, a polka-dotted blouse and red lipstick. My coat, which had once served me well for my 37-second trek from my Honda Accord to my high school in Nebraska, didn’t fare well in the Michigan winter. I was flanked by my parents and siblings, with my mother urging, impatient and cold, to go inside and eat.
“Yallah, Sarah. Yallah,” she called out, holding the door to Mama Satto’s half open. “We’re hungry.” I had just enough time to read the last line: Borders is opening on Main Street. Next to it, a shot from 2011, when Borders closed, bittersweet. I snapped a picture, my nails chipped and fingers bit by the cold, collecting quirky pictures of the University and Ann Arbor like they were rare Pokémon cards. In my arsenal, I had more than 20 pictures of the Law Quad, including a scribble of stick figures on the edge of the wall — aesthetic, I thought — and, of course, the quintessential photographs in the entry of Nickels Arcade and under the sign of the State Theater, “Howl’s Moving Castle.” If I wasn't already endeared enough to Ann Arbor, “Howl’s Moving Castle” was that final proverbial brick. Ann Arbor’s history with books was just the cherry on top. It’s true — in my college search, outside of Niche and U.S. News & World Report, I’ve spent an embarrassingly long time looking at websites that ranked the best college libraries. The Michigan Law Library appeared every time, and I added an asterisk beside the University of Michigan to signal its edge.
I was rearranging the photos in my head, planning which ones to post or make into a collage on Instagram (this was the time before Instagram had the option to add multiple pictures at once). I knew what I was going to say, my college hopping coming to a close: I’m ready to be a Michigan Wolverine.
Flash-forward four years and Ann Arbor is like a revolving door with books: Each year it seemed as if another one would exit, and in its place, something else will arrive. Infatuated with the crinkly feel of used books and the dusty, dreamlike atmosphere of bookshops, I had coaxed my friend Katherine the year before, another bibliophile, to go bookstore hopping with me.
“It would be like an exploration of Ann Arbor itself!” I enthused. I wrote a list of all the book-stores in the area, including a few unconventional ones like Crazy Wisdom Bookstore & Tea Room, Vault of Midnight, Aunt Agatha and even the Ann Arbor public library. I was amazed at the specificity of books, and how so many of my favorite things — coffee, books and cats — could exist in the same space. And no book-voyage is complete without a trip to Dawn Treader — Its outside book-display is a staple in my memories of Michigan and Ann Arbor. When I ventured to Aunt Agatha’s the next fall in a quest to find Christie’s “ABC Murders,” however, I was shocked to find that the store was permanently closed. It was a signal of the ever-changing landscape of Ann Arbor and books, paving the space for something new.
The very first sentence from the sign on the corner of N. University and State St. reads: “Ann Arborites have always bought books, borrowed books and had private libraries.”
And even with the heavy loss of a bookstore. Whether the Ann Arbor Library Association in 1838, Borders in 2011 or Aunt Agatha’s in 2018, Ann Arbor has always had and always will continue to have a dedicated relationship with books. Even though the bookstores may leave, the books stay.
Now, almost exactly four years later, I’m snapping the same photo. And despite my new winter coat and new life experiences elbow-deep into college, my relationship with books has remained.