For Jay Platt, bookselling has always been about stories and serendipity. Celebrating its 45th year on September 21, his store West Side Book Shop opened at 113 W Liberty Street in Ann Arbor in 1975, a few years after Platt graduated from the University with a degree in naval engineering.
Last week, Platt sat relaxed in a leather swivel chair, sipping water out of a small styrofoam cup as he described how this store began with just a few bookshelves, pointing out the rows and stacks of scattered books.
Though originally from Virginia, Platt stayed in Ann Arbor after graduation to be amid the political fervor of the late 1960s.
“It was a pretty crazy time,” Platt said. “I didn’t really know what I was wanting to do. I didn’t want to be in engineering, to be behind a desk all the time. And so I got into books. I feel very lucky that I found something I really like to do.”
Around 1970, while still in college, a friend of Platt’s took him into a bookshop in New York City — Booksellers’ Row on Fourth Avenue.
Surrounded by the towering shelves of used and rare books, Platt got “bitten by the bug.” The mysteries and histories hidden within those old covers drew him in.
Platt is also fascinated by far-off travel, and this is reflected in the West Side Bookshop’s collection — especially polar explorations. Platt asked me if I knew anything about the history of the Antarctic. When I said no, he sat up to tell me a story.
“Relatively early 19th century, no one even knew the Antarctic existed. No one had even cited it until the 1820s,” Platt explained. He cited books by Ernest Shackleton, one of the most famous explorers from the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration” — the book of the same name is one of Platt’s favorites. His eyes lit up while recounting Shackleton’s expedition, barely stopping for a breath at the Endurance’s (Shackleton’s ship) peril on the ice.
“He (Shackleton) made that decision to do it and not take the glory. He’d rather save his men. Anyway, later on, the pole had been reached by a couple of explorers. Shackleton wanted to be the first across the Antarctic continent. The Endurance got stuck in the ice and was crushed … And long story short, he saved those men. Nope, not one life was lost. It was just an incredible story … It probably got me started,” Platt said.
The West Side Book Shop also has a sizable collection of children’s books, literary first editions and books on Michigan state history.
“That’s one thing about the book trade. You have to have curiosity. You have to know a little bit about everything. And you’re always learning because there’s always something new,” Platt said.
Building a collection of over 20,000 books has kept Platt busy for the last 45 years. When I asked him if he keeps an inventory of all these books, he simply tapped his forehead. He remembers it all without notes.
Platt acquires many of these books from people who are moving or acquaintances of someone who has recently died. He also attends book fairs all across the country. During non-pandemic life, the events take him to Chicago, Minneapolis, Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, St. Petersburg, Floridam and Austin, Texas. There is also usually a book fair at the ballroom of the Michigan Union.
“Every now and then you find your little gem. I mean, it kind of keeps you going,” Platt said. One of his favorite finds was from five years ago when someone from the western side of the state brought in a book published in 1498. Any book published before 1501 is called incunabula, Platt explained — the word comes from the Latin for “swaddling clothes.” This was one of those gems.
Part of the West Side Book Shop’s history is in the building itself. Built in 1888 in Ann Arbor’s originally German neighborhood, the former owners, the Haarrars, sold German newspapers and carried German school books. They also had a photography studio in the back. Now, thanks to the passion and expertise of Doug Price, the back room retains its photographic roots, but as a gallery of vintage photography.
“I started buying and selling vintage photographs from say 1840, up to about 1930. So that’s really the bulk of my business,” Price said. One of his favorites is a photograph of the 1908 International Brotherhood of Teamsters convention in Detroit. The panoramic shot includes all the attendees in front of the Grand Army of the Republic building.
“Photographs like this contain a great number of stories. They’re like anthologies, they’re like novels, there’s texture. There’s human complexity, there’s ambiguity, there’s both subordinate and dominant points of fact in the photograph. That’s all interesting to me,” Price said.
Unfortunately, like all businesses threatened by COVID-19, the West Side Book Shop fell on tougher times this year. The bookstore was closed for three months, from March to mid-June. In April, Platt’s wife set up a GoFundMe. Luckily, on top of the online donations, a stranger dropped off a $2,000 check a few days ago.
“It worked out pretty well,” Platt said. “A lot of people come in and say how much they love it. There’s nothing like this. I’m proud of this. Just the fact that I try to carry good books, you know, I mean, hopefully pretty well chosen.”
With the afternoon light filtering in through the windows and onto the photographs, the room feels steeped in history. When I commented on how I enjoyed the disarray and homey feeling of the store, Platt said, “It adds to the serendipity — discovering something.”
Daily Arts Writer Nina Molina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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