Life Between Shelves: Scenes from Ann Arbor bookstores
I have bought more books in the past month than I have time to read. They pile on my nightstand, my desk, and the corners of my bedroom, and I tell myself I’ll read them when I no longer have to read for my classes. But then I find a book that I simply consume, all at once, as if time doesn’t exist until it’s finished.
I didn’t expect my quest to visit bookstores in Ann Arbor to land me with a bunch of new titles. Then again, try to spend time in any local store and leave empty handed — it doesn’t happen.
As a child I grew up next to a Borders in Ann Arbor before the company went out of business. My mother would take me and my brothers, and we’d each go home with new books, excited to curl up on the couch and start reading. I’d nearly forgotten what that felt like until now.
Borders is out of business, but local bookstores thrive in Ann Arbor. They cater to every appetite, every niche, and I’ve only ventured to five of them. What possibilities exist for book lovers in this town! Endless run-ins with bookish strangers in the coziest kinds of spaces. As winter descends upon this city, I’ll retreat to the bookstores and their old-book smells, clacking typewriter keys, and burning incense. Or, I’ll stay in — make tea, curl up with a book and devour it.
Winter is coming.
I enter Dawn Treader on a Thursday. In the early evening, it has just begun to rain, and I fear, combined with the wind, there may be no leaves on the trees by the time I leave.
Heavily discounted book carts line the entryway, a lure for the forlorn bibliophile. Inside, a bowl of candy sits on the counter next to the register with no one behind it. I want a miniature Milky Way. A woman with a sprawling, circular metal tree necklace sits on the floor with stacks of books around her. I can’t tell if she works here or not, but she’s lost in thought and doesn’t look up.
As I head farther back, the smell of once-damp pages and literary dust sets in. I breathe. It’s as though every corner I turn may hide a some new figure — an older gentleman with a thick green coat and a beanie, a couple that turns to one another and remark, “books on books!”
I pace the store’s maze-like footprint a few times to get the general layout. Up and down, down and up, there are faces everywhere I turn; yet somehow, the quiet settles around me. I venture deeper into the cavernous depths, past the glass cases filled with yellowing pages. A life-size Egyptian statue stands watch. Immensely large African masks hang throughout, staring. Cultural artifacts fill the place — there are even Star Trek cutouts in the Sci-Fi section.
A humming sound buzzes from above me. I look up. Glass ceiling panes are the backdrop to Star Wars battleship replicas, as if the ships were truly within the gray sky. I pause to watch them in flight and feel lucky to have noticed. No buildings or birds obscure my view. It’s just me, a life-size Captain Jean-Luc Picard, and the soaring Millennium Falcon.
The humming follows me through the store. At one point, a section of squeaky floor groans at me. Amid the lack of voices, I smile at this misplaced cry.
I make my way to the fiction aisle. Stools dot the floor every few paces, like a self-service setup for the ceiling-high shelves. I stop directly in front of the “F” section and begin eyeing it for my writers.
A Faulkner catches my eye. Grabbing a stool to retrieve it, I realize my backpack blocks the whole aisle. As I look down, a young man with blond hair and a stubby ponytail momentarily meets my eyes before darting behind another shelf in a Houdini-esque vanishing act. Just as I begin to believe that the store facilitates acts of illusion, he materializes on my other side.
I take down the “The Sound and the Fury,” and despite its crumpled cover, I want it. It smells that certain way: a bit like my grandfather’s house and cool, earthy dirt.
To leave the aisle, I dance around the man with the blond ponytail, and head to the front. A man now stands behind the register, and he lets out a big sigh as I approach the counter.
Me too, I want to say. Winter is coming.
Before heading out the door, I turn from the counter to see if the man with the ponytail found what he was looking for — he’s holding a book fraying along its amber spine, and the pages are close to his face.
I put the Faulkner in my backpack, though I worry about the condition of the cover. The wind whips through the open door, and leaves scatter on the welcome mat. I leave without taking a miniature Milky Way.
With one backward glance to where the man stood before heading out the door, I notice that he’s gone: no ponytail or frayed edges in sight. Simply vanished.
You can lock me out, but I can’t lock you in.
Another Thursday, and old-book smell accosts me. This, I think, is what happiness smells like. Inside Kaleidoscope Books & Collectibles there are piles of books everywhere I look, floor to ceiling, and the aisles are so tight that I tread cautiously to avoid knocking down any prized items.
I say hello to the store owner in the center of the room, hidden by a labyrinth of books, shelves, and glass cases.
“Is there anything in particular you’re looking for?” he asks.
“I’m just looking around,” I say, but soon realize I am so overwhelmed by the number of books that I don’t know where to start.
I let my hands wander over titles I have never heard of, picking up books with embossed covers and faded pages. To enter one aisle, I push against a door that emits a tremendous squeak.
Almost on instinct, I search for the classics. After the owner helps a man looking for old Spiderman comics, he once again directs his attention at me.
I ask him if he has any poetry.
The first book he placed in my hands was a heavy edition of a classical poet, whose name I didn’t quite catch.
“This just came in today,” he tells me.
I am reminded of medieval illuminated manuscripts with their gold leaf and Celtic knots. The cover is green, and I am in love. All I can muster in response to the book was, “So beautiful.”
Beautiful, because I didn’t know who the poet was and I didn’t want to admit that. He shows me a copy of “Wuthering Heights,” to which I respond, “Beautiful, it’s beautiful.” I tell him I have a much less beautiful copy of “Wuthering Heights.” The book rests next to a stack of huge, elegant Bibles. While I am tempted, it’s a bit out of a college student’s price range — after all, it was a collectible.
I drop my backpack to slip between the set of shelves and get a closer look. Behind one shelf, piles of posters and books are scattered on the ground. I wonder if the owner knew, or if he cared.
As I look — and impulsively touch every volume that intrigues me — the owner calls me over to look at a series of chapbooks filled with poetry. He gestures to a colorful one with big, loopy lettering on the front and tells me how it’s his own publication, a story he had told his son when he was four years old that made his son want to be a writer.
“Really?” I ask.
The chapbook is called, “The Day He Refused to be Silent.” I thumb through, and comment on how great it was that his son had published it for him. He shows me another one, which I flip over to see who wrote it.
“Who is Isaac?”
“That’s my son.”
He tells me this was the work that had truly made his son a writer, and that it was about his wife. His wife had fallen and hit her head, and she didn’t have a high chance of surviving. He explained to me that the day she was out of the hospital, Isaac had presented the chapbook.
He says it’s a very special thing — no matter how successful he becomes as a writer. This will always be the best thing.
I buy Isaac’s chapbook. As he rings me up, my eyes continue to wander around the shop.
“What a cool cash register,” I tell him.
It looks vintage with its large, round keys and still rang sharply when the drawer opens.
“You know, there’s a whole basement, too,” the owner says.
“How do I get to it?”
“Downstairs. You want to go downstairs?”
As we walk down the stairs together, I have second thoughts. I ask if people actually visited the basement, and he says they do, every day. He fiddles with a set of keys.
“It won’t lock me in here, will it?” I ask, jokingly.
“You can lock me out, but I can’t lock you in.”
We both laugh.
The door shuts behind me — the deadbolt blocking the door from fully closing — and I stand alone in the basement. I breathe in the musk and start exploring. In addition to the books, there are artifacts and collectibles everywhere. I stumble upon a stack of old Sports Illustrated Magazines and think of my dad. In one corner, two old gumball machines rest against each other, both full of colorful candy melted against the glass. I find a poster that reads, “It’s difficult to soar with eagles when you work with turkeys.” I laugh aloud and consider buying it.
After a while, the air begins to taste too stale and stagnant to continue browsing. Flipping the lights off, I head back up the stairs. The owner is sitting outside the shop, next to a table of books. We wish each other well and I am on my way, clutching Isaac’s chapbook at my side.
Do you know Mary, Queen of Scots?
There is no one inside except the man behind the counter as I walk through the propped-open door of Motte & Bailey. I offer a small hello, almost a squeak, reluctant to disturb the quiet. I start to slowly circumnavigate the store; it seems logical, as most of the books reside along the outskirts of the store. The walls and shelves create small nooks while the center of the store remains open. I can see straight to the back. The cascading towers of literature do not obstruct my line of sight.
Books are pulled from their shelves and stacked on the floor in an almost deliberate fashion, placed carefully next to an inviting chair, as if a reader had just left for tea and planned to come back. Some of the books are gold-plated and intricate. There are many cases of large, deeply colored volumes.
Along the ceiling, black, chalkboard-esque quotes line the walls: Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered. — W.H. Auden.
I can’t agree more.
Among the sections Naval History and the Civil War, I search for titles I recognize but feel too young or unsophisticated for this kind of market. Suddenly self-conscious, I feel a little foolish for even stopping to look here, as if someone unseen may judge me for pretending to be interested.
A man with a bulky coat — despite the sunshine and warm breeze — comes in and asks about two books. The man behind the counter seems flustered, and says he had meant to put the books in sleeves before the bulky-coat man came in.
“I’ll do that right now,” he says, standing.
As he got to work, the other man grabs a seat near the front of the store, the children’s section and loudly asks, “Do you know about Mary, Queen of Scots?”
“I’m looking for her, but she’s not in here,” the man continues, after a pause.
He must be flipping through a book I cannot see, and based on the volume they used in the otherwise silent store and the manner in which they addressed each other, I begin to believe they’ve forgotten my presence.
Unnoticed, I sit in a chair in a little nook, one of the ones that appeared staged or recently abandoned, and gaze at the collection. The spines read “Ancient Greece,” and though I am not exactly interested, I appreciate the breadth of what’s in front of me. I sit back and breathe. The two men exchange anecdotes about Mary, Queen of Scots, and I contemplate the muskiness and the clutter of the bookstore — I expect it from a place that sells rare and used books. It smells as though the books come from loving homes, placed peacefully on end tables of rooms with fireplaces next to pipes stuffed with tobacco.
A boxed trilogy of Lord of the Rings is within reach. I grab for it in recognition, but it is as costly as it was lovely. Feeling guilty for not having bought anything, I pick up a business card on my way out, the smallest gesture of appreciation and thanks I can muster.
As I leave the men laugh loudly together, and I begin to wonder if the man in the coat frequently buys books from Motte & Bailey. Maybe the two had known each other for years, and I had just caught a glimpse of friendship.
They wrote something genius.
My nose drips. In an instant, it has gotten cold outside, and the winter breeze swirls yellow gingko leaves around in harsh circles. Inside Literati, I stare at the checkerboard floor, and am hyper-aware of the cadence of my sniffling in contrast to the smooth tunes of Norah Jones.
I scan the chalkboard headings over the shelves, each in their own unique font, but eventually approach a short table of books near the door.
One title, “Redeployment,” features the silhouette of a soldier and sports one of Literati’s iconic handwritten recommendations.
...this book is not a beach read, but the writing is powerful, the stories will stick with you, and your perspective on our current wars and most importantly our veterans will/may never be the same. Highly recommended. — Mike.
I pick it up and stuff it under my arm.
Eavesdropping, I listen to a silver-haired woman explain to a gentleman that the store has three floors. The main floor is mostly fiction, the basement is nonfiction and the upstairs is a coffee shop with a section for young readers. I find myself inexplicably nodding in agreement. The woman turns to me and asks if I need any help.
“I’m just looking,” I respond.
But the woman spots the book under my arm.
“Trying to decide?” she inquires. “You’ve got that look about you.”
She smiles the way my grandmother did, without showing her teeth but with her eyes bright from behind her glasses.
As I pick up a copy of a book one of my former professors had written, the three women working in the store try to decide if they can put the chalkboard “events” sign back outside.
“Is it still drizzling?” one ponders.
“No, but the wind gusts keep knocking it down,” another replies.
I retreat to the basement of the store and stop to see the latest news on Literati’s Rheinmetall typewriter, a blue-gray fixture perched on a low table in the corner by the stairs.
A short poem about spring is the only text on the page, but many snippets of text are posted on the wall behind the machine. Typewriter rule #6 stated, “If you type something genius, you’ll make it on to our wall of fame.” Beneath that, someone had pasted a tiny message:
I bolt back up the stairs and pay for both my selection and an overpriced Moleskine planner that I don’t really need.
I exit the store toting a Literati bag and head down Fourth Avenue.
As I fight my way through the blustery Ann Arbor afternoon, I can hear one of the two people smoking in a huddle near the side of a building:
“I see those bags all the time these days.”
I want something spicy.
Incense perfumes the inside of Crazy Wisdom. I linger near the front of the store because there is truly so much to look at, and I’m distracted by the presentation of mandala coloring books for adults. On top of the shelves, headshots of spiritual teachers Meher Baba and Ram Dass, among others, line the wall. In the front window, up high, owl and dolphin-shaped bells adorn a short metal tree. I don’t realize they’re bells until I nudge the tree and hear one jingle. Nearby, a book titled “Owls: Our Most Charming Bird” perches on the shelf. It features striking illustrations — biologically correct, by my estimation.
A bearded man wearing a T-shirt that reveals a sleeve tattoo on one arm asks the young woman working at the counter if he can look at some jewelry. He’s interested in red garnet, specifically a piece with seven stones. I don’t look to see, but I imagine the gemstones as seven little beady eyes.
Who is he shopping for? I wonder.
Crazy Wisdom houses a multitude of stones, crystals and gems. I approach an impressive display of amber jewelry enclosed in glass. I think of my younger brother; he once bought a necklace here for a girl he liked, and I remember how the woman tenderly opened the glass case to let us grapple over which one the girl would like best.
The store holds itself as a bedrock of holistic health and spirituality. Each artifact on display has a short description next to it that details its history or healing properties: The Hindu deity Ganesh is the god of good fortune and success. Black onyx supposedly protects people, transforming their negative energies.
I can understand why these things might be profitable.
Nearby, many non-book related objects are for sale: cards and hand-sewn journals, bundled sage to “protect your home,” incense and all of the extras for burning it, dream catchers, patchouli soaps and essential oils. I laugh when I notice a sign that reads, “Salt chunks are not to be rubbed on your skin.” Perhaps the people who bought salt chunks were yearning for something to heal them, whatever their ailment may be.
I draw squiggles on a Buddha board and examine quill pens, ink and wax stamp seals. Fancy mortar and pestles fill an entire display. Near the back of the store, Celtic music becomes audible. A blond woman asks two employees if they have any Tarot cards that deal with the sun sign.
“There is an astrological deck,” one of the women responds.
She had short brown hair and explained how she learned a lot about astrology from the cards.
“I like the art, too,” she added.
A grand, wood-paneled staircase leads to the Tea Room of Crazy Wisdom. Instead of Celtic music, horns blare through the speakers. At the top of the banister, there sits a collection of lavish, handmade mugs with bulbous bellies and stones glazed to the handles. They are colored with the most beautiful gem tones, and I touch many of them lightly, thinking about the one I once bought for my mom, even though I wanted to keep it for myself.
I walk up to the counter to order some tea, self-conscious of the way my boots sound on the hardwood floor in the empty room.
“What do you recommend?” I ask the woman behind the counter.
She has the softest black ringlets framing her face, and she leans across the counter to look at the tea list with me.
“What do you like?”
She rattles off with a few of her favorites, like Earl Grey or English Breakfast, when I interject:
“I want something spicy.”
“Spicy? Hmm … hang on.” She flips the menu to read it and apologizes to me.
“This is my first day of work.”
“Oh, welcome,” I say, though I immediately wonder what qualifies me to welcome her here.
I eye her to see if she could sense it.
I pour tea from the white pot, spilling on the table just slightly. After soaking it up with a tiny napkin, I take a sip. Bitter and earthy — not what I wanted, but it’s warm, and I feel grateful nonetheless.