“Brothels and pharmacies make more money, that’s for sure,” said Gene Alloway, owner of Motte & Bailey Booksellers, a rare and used bookstore on North Fourth Avenue. “There’s a saying that if you want to make a million dollars in books, start with two million.”
The brothels and pharmacies of questionable practices Alloway referred to are more than just lucrative businesses: they apparently once operated (although not, rather unfortunately, at the same time) within the same walls as Alloway’s bookstore. But if a bookstore seems like a mundane follow-up to those more salacious ventures, a step inside Motte & Bailey bookstore puts those concerns to rest.
Among old New Yorker magazine covers, children’s books and coffee-table-ready novels on Rembrandt, Motte & Bailey bookstore carries a comfortable quaintness that feels particularly Ann Arbor in nature. The store name is playfully displayed on the window with words that curl back and forth, recalling a storefront in a Harry Potter film. The actual history of the books inside, though, can be a bit more vicious than a nose-less Ralph Fiennes.
According to Alloway, one such piece of history that passed through the walls stands out in particular — an original declaration written by the University of Michigan’s president in the late 19th century. In it, the president bans University students from visiting the local Ann Arbor bars because, he says, students would tend to have too much to drink and find themselves, perhaps, too belligerent for the collective good. As Alloway puts it, “There’d be huge brawls right in the middle of the street, weekend after weekend, between the University students and the German workers.”
Alloway’s reverence for history is important in holding the store to its niche. For a college town filled with eclectic bookstores, there’s still a carefully curated atmosphere to the store, and it’s that individualism, Alloway says, that makes room for what he estimates to be more than 20 different booksellers in the area.
“We all have our slightly different focus,” he said. At the bottom level, yes, all of us want that nice copy of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ — all of us would buy the first edition and sell it for lots of money. But on the day-to-day level, we all have our different foci.”
This keeps the high supply of local bookstores from devolving into the kind of intra-trade warring that, say, the New York Ice Cream Truck Mafia found itself in. The local booksellers are not, Alloway says, walking up to each other’s collections with bats or a Zippo lighter.
Rather, Alloway will happily direct customers to the local bookstore that most fits their particular needs. (While I sat there, he recommended that a young woman searching for Jane Austen peruse the West Side Book Shop.)
So while Motte & Bailey does have an array of material, its strength, Alloway says, is still based in what he first took to the web back in 1996 when he opened a website as a book seller, focusing mainly on rare books in the subjects of classical history and the military.
What started solely as an online enterprise, however, eventually became a physical store in 2000, as Alloway and two friends — John Murphy II and Paul Hare — found themselves both with an increased interest in bookselling and in the midst of a philosophical disagreement with the University of Michigan library, where Alloway worked for a number of years as a librarian after receiving degrees in classical history and librarianship. Alloway uses the transition of mediums through music as an analogy:
“Whenever there’s a change in technology, things get lost,” he said. When you went from Edison recordings to the first vinyl, there were things that didn’t come over. And when you went from those early 78s, the 33s, and 45 RPM vinyls, again, not everything came over. And then the same way cassettes and 8-track tapes and CDs and now digital. At every step, there are things that are unique to whatever mediums are available. The University, to me, was ignoring that.”
John Murphy eventually left the store for law school while Paul moved to Kansas, leaving Alloway as the sole consistent appraiser. But Alloway still makes sure to keep the values the store was founded on fresh. He only scans original copies when uploading books online, places his focus on the most relevant content in a genre regardless of publishing date or what’s popular at the given moment and above all, he tries to make bookselling a more personal venture, rather than a faceless transaction.
That love for the books themselves, the leather and not just the ink, finds itself in the store’s unofficial motto: “Each book has its own destiny,” a quote that hangs in the back of the store. For Alloway, it represents the idea that he, as a seller, is just a stop on a long journey these books will make. And those journeys, too, tell their own stories.
One in particular stands out to Alloway, he says. He recently acquired a large 19th-century volume of the female aristocracy in the early reign of Victoria, beautifully bound and containing steel engravings of each woman. But two listed in the table of contents are absent. Thinking the error might just be individual, he reached out to the libraries where the rest of the approximately 12 copies are held. Of the seven who responded, all said the same two women were missing. It’s those kinds of “So what happened?” questions that are so enticing about original bookselling and collecting, Alloway said: “The things that you could never find out unless you literally look through it page by page.”
It seems Alloway is not the only one who finds in-person browsing and hands-on bookkeeping exciting. While the store started online, in-store sales now far surpass online sales. Alloway cites the enormous imbalance of supply over demand with online competition as one factor. Another more powerful element at play, though, is that book buying and browsing is an experience, and an often-personal one that people like to have a guide for. Most of us can’t traverse an entire map on our own.
“It’s about leading people into directions,” Alloway says. “Someone reads a general book on World War II, and then they want to read a book on a particular battle, and then they want to read a book on a particular unit and then they want to read a biography of a general of that unit. That’s what’s really nice.”
To help sort through the broadness of any given category, Alloway says, it’s important for the bookseller to be able to tell readers, “Read this, not that.” As he so accurately lays bare, nobody has all the time, money or space to collect and read every book they might want.
If the business of bookselling and collecting seems serious, it’s because it is. Alloway relayed a story to me of a German family he worked closely with to return a stolen manuscript. In turn, they told him of their relative, a librarian, who hung himself because their family estate was looted so heavily by the Russians during World War II.
“He just couldn’t protect all of the books.”
The Motte & Bailey Bookshop may not yet be that zealous, but it’s an important staple in the ever-growing field. As Alloway puts it, “There are always small gaps that can be filled with books.”