Spring finally feels like it has permanently sprung as the sun shines down on a happily busy State Street. Even the deepest crevices of Graffiti Alley on East Liberty feel just a little bit brighter. For the first time in months, Ann Arbor looks crowded. Families and students alike are spread across the Diag basking in the coveted “Michigan spring,” taking in the 55 degree weather.
The iconic art-deco marquee of the State Theatre hangs over the people of Ann Arbor, constantly watching as new generations of students and townies alike explore both the city and themselves. The Michigan Theater’s doors are open, the comforting smell of movie theater popcorn wafting through the streets. Across the way, Dawn Treader Book Shop gifts passersby with carts filled with books who await their discovery in the gleaming sun. A few blocks down, Encore Records, Motte and Bailey Booksellers and Literati Bookstore elevate the vibrant, urban culture of Main Street and its adjacent streets. Passionate University of Michigan students and dedicated Ann Arbor residents roam this city’s cultural hubs out of a pure, pressing desire to learn and experience something new.
These establishments and many others like it serve to supplement the intellectual and creative drive synonymous with a college town. Beyond the plethora of cultural stimulation pertaining directly to the Ann Arbor experience, city staples like Dawn Treader and Encore Records provide people with the ability to escape into stories in a variety of media from all across the globe.
Through speaking to the owners of each of these businesses, I have come to realize the true breadth of what Ann Arbor’s artistic community contributes to the uninhibited beauty of an innovative city. Each of these establishments have endured the cultural and societal shifts of an ever-changing Ann Arbor. From the silent movie era of the 1920s to the youth-organized activism of the 1960s, residents of the city have depended on these creative spaces for thoughtful exploration and community empowerment. Through the wear-and-tear of national financial struggles like the Great Depression, the 2008 Recession and even the current COVID-19 pandemic, these establishments have been able to ensure their survival while still serving the Ann Arbor community.
Within these artistic niches lie the heart and soul of this city. The presence of the students who have come before us can be felt in every seat in the State Theatre and every book on the winding shelves of Dawn Treader.
As our generation floods these extraordinary streets, cultural and societal progress will inevitably shift our perceptions of what Ann Arbor has to offer. As our social priorities change, the businesses we frequent change with them. What is deemed trendy or modern is constantly being amended, and Ann Arbor’s business scene reflects our interests and curiosities. Regardless of these inevitable changes, it is deeply necessary that we ensure the longevity and survival of the establishments. On top of all of the school spirit and academic intensity of student life, the true heartbeat of this wonderful place lies within its spaces for free-thinking and exploration.
Beyond just the places themselves, these businesses have had profound, unexpected impacts on many Ann Arbor residents, even ones not heavily involved in the arts and culture scene.
“A few years ago, a lady brought in an incredibly rare Mormon book that I sold for her for $60,000,” Jean Alloway, owner of Motte and Bailey Booksellers on North Fourth Avenue, told me in an interview. “And she didn’t know what she had. And it saved her business.”
A woman who randomly discovered an old book was able to obtain the money needed to keep her life and job all because of the experts that call Ann Arbor home. The abundance of art enthusiasts within a relatively small downtown area displays Ann Arbor’s wholehearted dedication to creativity and thoughtful exploration, a common thread in each of its arts and culture establishments.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Dawn Treader Manager Africa Schaumann explained the bookstore’s unique sense of openness. Schaumann has been working at Dawn Treader for three years and moved into the position of manager after the previous manager suddenly passed away.
“I call (Dawn Treader) the commerce of community, which is simply to say that, I think every bookstore is this way, but with the Dawn Treader especially, it’s kind of like neutral ground, you can kind of come as you are and explore freely,” Schaumann said.
Dawn Treader has been in Ann Arbor for almost 50 years, lasting through three location changes and hundreds of thousands of U-M students. This sense of community, driven by independent bookstores like Dawn Treader, has been central to the Ann Arbor environment for decades.
While Dawn Treader focuses on used and novelty books, Literati Bookstore, another independent bookstore in downtown Ann Arbor, focuses more on new books. Literati opened to try to keep the culture of intellectual exploration alive after the closing of the infamous Borders Bookstore, managers Mike Gustafson and Hilary Gustafson said in the “About Literati & Our History in Ann Arbor” page of Literati’s website.
“When we heard about Borders closing shop nationally back in 2011, our immediate reaction was, ‘What about downtown Ann Arbor?’” the Gustafson’s wrote on their website. “We grew up here. We have family here. We couldn’t stomach one of the most literate, creative cities in the nation without a downtown general bookstore to share ideas, discuss books and meet authors.”
Though Literati is relatively new, it has kept up and enriched the literary legacy of Ann Arbor alongside stores that have been in this city for decades. On the flip side, older stores like Dawn Treader have especially made their mark on Ann Arbor and have served as a dedicated cultural home for residents of all walks of life.
“It’s a place that has kind of been everywhere and has changed, and over the years it’s just weathered that change really well, which I think just speaks to its kind of essential nature in the community,” Schaumann said. “A lot of people tell me they can’t imagine being in Ann Arbor and there not being a Dawn Treader.”
The cultural significance of Dawn Treader is reflected in its ability to remain relevant and loved generation after generation. Owners of similar establishments reported a similar feeling of attachment between Ann Arbor residents and their creativity-driven businesses. Russ Collins, executive director of the Michigan Theater Foundation, noted the fervent passion of community members who were appalled at the almost-closing of the Michigan Theater in 1979. Ann Arbor’s dedication to the arts is exhibited by its enthusiastic determination to keep cultural establishments like the Michigan Theater, which has been open since 1928, alive and well.
“Television by 1979 had really run down the movie business significantly, and big old theaters like the Michigan Theater weren’t commercially sustainable, but the community decided to rally to save the theater,” Collins stated. “It was really one of those, you know, grassroots cool things that a University town kind of place can really get behind.”
Both the State Theatre and Michigan Theater currently operate under the non-profit Michigan Theater Foundation and have also been deemed historical landmarks, guaranteeing their survival for generations to come.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Michigan Theater Foundation has found ways to continue the legacy of its theaters and provide Ann Arbor residents with as many film-related opportunities as possible. Public health-informed indoor screenings, virtual trivia nights, a virtual movie palace and much more ensure that Ann Arbor continues to be a home for artistic appreciation. Throughout Ann Arbor’s history, a deep love for film has been a staple of this city’s culture, and these public health-informed events keep that passion alive.
“A lot of the Big Ten schools (had many film societies) as well, but Ann Arbor was particularly passionate about cinema. And so we carry that interest in art house films independent cinema forward, as part of our mission,” Collins said.
Between the annual Ann Arbor Film Festival, which first began in 1962, and student organizations such as Filmic Productions and M-agination Films, appreciation of film and film culture continues to be embedded in Ann Arbor’s framework. In an interview with The Daily, LSA freshman Morgan Kowalewski, member of Filmic Productions, shared her experiences with the prominent film culture in Ann Arbor. Filmic Productions is a student organization that creates film content for local businesses as well as the University.
“Doing the commencement video for graduation was such a perfect job for us because we are students, creating a video about students, and we’re going to do to make that video best, which is why it’s so important that there’s a presence of film students creating film in Ann Arbor because we are such a student-heavy town,” Kowalewski said.
Students in Ann Arbor like Kowalewski are genuinely and deeply passionate about film, which is a driving force in the larger-scale arts scene that includes businesses like the Michigan Theater Foundation.
A true passion for their respective expertise seems to be a common theme across both students and local business owners. Encore Records, which has been in Ann Arbor since the 1940s, has experienced a plethora of musical and artistic trends throughout its existence. Its current owner, Jim Dwyer, is a passionate music fan who has dedicated his professional life to exploring new music and helping out fellow fans who frequent Encore.
“You’re always finding new stuff and learning new things, so it’s very satisfying because records make people happy,” Dwyer said in a phone interview with The Daily.
Alloway reported a similar feeling of fulfillment from the never-ending discovery of previously unknown content.
“People bring you books or call you about books all the time,” Alloway stated. “So every week after 25 years, I still see books I’ve never seen before, books I never knew existed.”
It is undeniable that this city’s artistic scene has been gravely affected by the impact of COVID-19. Live performances have been postponed for over a year now, and cozy cultural hubs like Literati Bookstore have been reduced to being pick-up only. A downtown that was once bustling with thousands of students and townies has become quiet and empty. Conditions are improving every day, particularly as the distribution of vaccines becomes more widespread, but Ann Arbor’s once exceptionally vibrant art scene has been somewhat put on hold.
However, each of these businesses and many more are doing all they can to ensure that Ann Arbor’s fascination with creativity marches on. Most, if not all, of Ann Arbor’s bookstores, theaters, record stores and art galleries have reopened in some capacity, providing residents with the chance to rediscover lost passions in this stressful time. Because each of these establishments were built on community involvement, they are doing everything they can to ensure that Ann Arbor will be fully alive again in the near future. But they can’t do it alone.
These places all rely on the residents of Ann Arbor to remain successful. Unfortunately, the abundance of creative content in Ann Arbor serves little purpose if residents are not engaged with it. Even in difficult times, we owe it to each of these businesses to make our best effort in supporting them. They are what make this city the wonderful, explorative environment that college kids, alumni, residents and faculty all value so much. And they deserve our love in return.
Here is a list of art/creative based establishments within walking distance of Central Campus:
Dawn Treader Bookshop
- 514 E. Liberty St.
Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room
- 114 S. Main St.
Motte and Bailey Booksellers
- 212 N. 4th Ave.
West End Bookshop
- 113 W. Liberty St.
- 124 E. Washington St.
Vault of Midnight (comic books)
- 219 S. Main St.
- 603 E. Liberty St.
- 233 S. State St.
Ann Arbor Art Center
- 117 W. Liberty St.
- 118 N. 4th Ave.
- 117 W. Liberty St.
Flipside Art Studio
- 255 E. Liberty St. Suite 213b
- 208 N. 4th Ave.
- 336 S. State St.
- 210 S. Main St.
Statement Columnist Emily Blumberg can be reached at email@example.com.