In an era where you can have a banana slicer, glow in the dark toilet paper, sugar-free gummi bears, pajamas and the textbook you need for class dropped on your doorstep in two days via Amazon, it’s hard to believe that the company started as a warehouse only able to hold a couple hundred books at a time. Considering that book sales currently make up only 7 percent of the company’s revenue annually, how is it possible that a business that can only in a small part identify as a “bookseller” has, for many people, replaced the need for physical bookstores?
The answer may life in the fact that, although the origins of Amazon were in book distribution, CEO and Founder Jeff Bezos’ initiative was never a seed planted by belief in the inherent value of the written word.
In an article for The New Yorker, George Packer writes that Bezos “quit his job at a Manhattan Hedge fund and moved to Seattle to found a company that could ride the exponential growth of the early commercial internet.”
I’ve never been a stranger to the independent bookstore. As the daughter of two writers and a Brooklyn, N.Y. native it was a seemingly unavoidable encounter. From pulling “Cat in the Hat” and “The Snowy Day” off the bottom shelves of Book Court in Carroll Gardens to spending hours tucked away in the cozy back corner, or in the backyard garden of Park Slope’s Community Book Store inhaling anything from “Captain Underpants” to “The Princess Diaries” — these were sure signs of early literary promise.
My teen angst led me to the better-known Strand bookstore. My twin brother Jack and I would narrowly avoid Union Square in mid-December and slip into Strand in pursuit of reasonably priced and thoughtful holiday gifts for our bookworm family members. We’d end up splitting off to our respective sections — he into music biographies or world records books, and I into the poetry section or scrounging through the hodge-podge of $1 gently used gems. Although I spend very little time in New York these days, I’ll still return to Strand to stumble upon a secondhand copy of some classic that still smells the way books should.
This is not to say, I, as a 21-year-old on a college-student budget, with a deep love for the written word, buy all my books at cute mom n’ pop shops that carry the best writers you’ve never heard of without ever lurking into the behemoth that is the world of Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
I spent a good portion of my childhood in Barnes & Noble, too, but in retrospect these moments were different. There weren’t really any comfy chairs, and every B & N I’d been to had the same aesthetic of light colored wood, dark green and neutral-colored woodland animals painted onto the walls of the kids’ section. Barnes & Noble was where I’d pull out a stack of teen magazines that I wasn’t really supposed to be reading, or wonder why it seemed that so many of the books on display bore the same titles as the multiplex cinema marquees with images of their conventionally attractive protagonists gracing the covers. In my humble opinion, the covers had looked just as good the way the illustrators had first printed them.
I will still, shamefully, admit that I bought or rented all of my books on Amazon this semester and last semester even purchased a book for $2.99 that I needed for class as an e-book. Amid the threats I hear about the perishing of the physical book and the worldwide takeover of Amazon and e-readers galore, I decided to investigate a successful independent bookstore in my current stomping grounds.
Ann Arbor’s own Literati, located on East Washington Street, has come to characterize this phase of my life the way Book Court did my toddlerhood and Strand my adolescence. I can often be found studying in The Espresso Bar, a café that rests above the bookstore. Studying might mean nursing a latte and choosing to read what my roommate has lovingly coined “one of those skinny poetry books” pulled from a shelf downstairs while I use my PSYCH 240 textbook as a glorified paperweight/armrest.
Literati is one of those bookstores that feels alive. From the steady stream of readings to the corner location with a big window to let light in to the handwritten book recommendations punctuating the shelves to the click-clack of the available typewriter downstairs, the nearly 3-year-old book haven buzzes.
I chatted over coffee with Hilary Lowe Gustafson and Michael Gustafson, the young married couple who own Literati. I asked them to look back and reflect on the bookstore’s origin story.
In 2011, before opening Literati, they were living in Brooklyn where Hilary worked at Simon & Schuster Publishing house and part-time at independent Green Light Bookstore. Michael was working as a video artist and freelance writer, and the two bonded over a love of literary culture, which included independent bookstores as a cornerstone of their social lives and courtship.
Hilary and Michael saw Green Light as one of their inspirations for opening Literati.
“They started in 2009, after the Kindle and after all that and still thrived regardless, so they were kind of our model community center bookstore,” Hilary said.
Both owners are Michigan natives. Hilary is from Ann Arbor and Michael from Lowell, Michigan. When Borders closed both in Ann Arbor and nationally in 2011, the couple saw an opportunity to fill the gap in Ann Arbor’s independent bookselling community, specializing in new books.
“As part of our social life in New York, we would go to bookstores," Hilary said. "It just seemed like a good community space … we always talked about what it would be like to own a store ourselves.”
When asked about the place of independent booksellers in the wake of retailers like Amazon and the advent of e-readers, Hilary and Michael shared insight into the integrity and unparalleled experience of independent bookstores.
“There are more bookstores in the last three years opening than closing so we view that as a trend, a return to independent bookstores after many closed throughout the 2000s,” Michael said, identifying the notion that the indie bookstore is on the decline as something of a fallacy.
The owners defended their bookstore wholeheartedly, standing by the integrity of books, suggesting that a megastore like Amazon is unable to recognize the inherent value of a book the way an independent business that carefully handpicks its contents and creates a holistic book-buying experience does.
“We don’t view Amazon as a competitor because the product they’re offering is different," Hilary said. "Yeah, they offer a book, but they don’t offer a space to explore and browse and have whimsy in the same way you have in our store.”
“I think that people purchase things online that they know that they want, but bookstores allow customers to browse and find things they didn’t necessarily know that they wanted and allow customers a chance to surprise themselves,” Michael said.
Whimsy, surprise, chance — the owners spoke almost as if the bookstore is an enchanted forest or arcade of sorts. What I think they were getting at is a space that engages actively with the community, that it’s part of something that Hilary doesn’t believe larger booksellers get the opportunity to do.
“You can read reviews of a million people you don’t know, or you can come to a bookstore and get to know the staff and find someone on the staff that you really love the reading tastes of and have a dialogue about that,” Hilary said.
I silently admited that reading the handwritten staff recommendations in the store is less daunting than scanning through the seemingly infinite reviews on Amazon — it doesn’t seem like too many internet trolls frequent the store, but I could be mistaken.
Hilary and Michael also highlighted the longevity and novelty of the physical book, speaking with a reverence that is not necessarily felt toward multi-decade-old e-readers or laptops. We discussed the value of electronics when compared to books.
“They (electronics) lose their value and their purpose in a way that a book doesn’t over time,” Hilary said.
“Yet they’re so expensive,” Michael added.
Michael also touched on the bookstore's logo — a typewriter.
“Our logo is a typewriter that was based on a model my grandmother gave me and it was my grandfather’s typewriter from the 1930s; it still works," he said. "I inherently don’t believe that many of the e-reading devices in 80 years from now will work. I can browse her bookshelves and find books from 100 years ago and still read them. I inherently believe in physical paper books being long-lasting, durable products that will be around for hundreds of years.”
Keeping with the typewriter anecdote, it’s important to note that in the basement section of Literati, where nonfiction books are housed, there is a maroon Olympia typewriter available for anyone to use. It wears a typewritten sign that says, “Please be gentle with me. I’m old.”
It’s clear that there are emotional values and family histories tied up in the business. Belief in the book is sustained with fervor.
“I have a book that was given to me on my 21st birthday and the little inscriptions are handwritten in there," Michael said. "That’s meaningful to me, more than receiving a gift certificate to Amazon. I think it’s just inherently believing in the future of that, that made us both want to start the store and made us want to keep going."
Much of Literati’s success has depended on their engagement with other small businesses and nonprofit groups in the area, as well as their robust events calendar. For example, The Espresso Bar subleases the second floor of the building from Literati. It provides both businesses with larger space for people to read, chat and work. It also serves as a spot for the bookstore to seat audiences during readings and other literary events.
"They needed more space and we needed more space and we don’t know coffee," Michael said. "We know books and we wanted a coffee shop but we didn’t have the expertise to do it so we partnered with some of the best coffee baristas in town. It’s been successful thus far."
The coffee shop and bookstore work in healthy symbiosis. The relaxing atmosphere of browsing the shelves is well supplemented by a caffeine fix, and for coffee lovers who come to The Espresso Bar, the spattering of signed new releases upstairs might be a happy accident.
Hilary and Michael have also collaborated with organizations such as Wolverine Press, a printing press run out of the University, as well as other local and independent publishers, furthering a commitment to community involvement and building healthy relationships with local retailers. They also collaborate with the University’s English department through the Zell Fellows Reading Series.
“We try to work with a lot of University folks who have their own books out, especially in the poetry department,” Michael said.
Literati even collaborated with a group of Engineering students on a project, an example of one of the ways the store seeks to build a relationship with the University.
“We had a group of Engineering students use us for one of their projects to help us figure out ways to better make our store more efficient because as bookstore people we’re not the most efficient people sometimes. That was awesome because it allowed them to get some insight into how a small business works and we got the expertise of them as students,” Hilary said.
Hilary and Michael started Literati out of a love for the town and a desire to contribute to its ethos of successful independent businesses.
“We do it because we love this town and we want to make it more vibrant," Hilary said. "By partnering with other people you reach a broader base. People can do something creative that may not have been done before.”
“It takes a village to raise a bookstore,” Michael added.
He continued this with an analogy that compares the cultivation of the Literati community to the experience of raising a child. It seems fitting, as the bookstore was born shortly before the owners got married.
“In the first six months, you’re just trying to make sure that the child survives," he said. "It’s a lot of sleepless and long nights and worry and kinda freakin’ out and then it gets easier, and right now this bookstore is sort of walking and talking and it’s getting there and now instead of survival, we’re getting more into the personality stage, doing more with the community and becoming better community members.”
I left with an admiration for the ambition and integrity of the store, and believe in the magic and importance of independent bookstores, but I am still left with questions, reluctant to reduce my interest in the economics of the bookselling to a polarizing debate that pits the Amazons of the world against the Literatis.
Having a friendly and familiar local bookstore like Literati to linger and explore is a treasure, but what about communities that are limited in this respect and must rely on Amazon to read books they want to read?
Maybe putting books alongside video games or hard-to-find snack foods can draw in an audience that otherwise wouldn’t have much of an interest, but what does the commodification of a book do for writers who, as Packer puts it, are put “under pressure to prove that their work produced sales?”
Maybe the world of commercial book sales is not even in the same ballpark as the independent bookstore model. According to Business Insider, Amazone tends to pursue detail-oriented introverts who generally lacked well-developed interpersonal skills as employees, a personality type that would most likely not facilitate success in a social and community-based institution like Literati.
Navigating the book world is complicated. It can force readers, writers, business owners, artists, educators and editors to question the benefits or obstacles in the evolution of bookselling. It asks us to wonder what these changes suggest about the way we value the creation and production of books. I am grateful to attend school in a place where great literary culture is accessible. There are bookstores that have allowed me to feel like the excitement and spontaneity of discovering books and sharing that with other people is alive and well. It gives me hope for those who lead lives as artists, writers and educators who depend on the power of the printed word and know what I mean when I talk about that nice “old book” smell.