Just days after opening Shaman Drum bookstore, owner Karl Pohrt was bombarded by professors with questions. Not questions about books, rather questions about how a bookstore, which caters to graduate students and college professors, could survive. The answer: sell textbooks.
Now, 16 years after its opening and 15 years after Shaman began selling textbooks, the locally owned retailer finds itself perched above Ulrich’s, Michigan Book and Supply, the Union Bookstore and most notably, Amazon.com for readers choice in textbooks. With more than 750 different courses selling through Shaman, many readers find its convenience one of its greatest assets. Well, that and the free Zingerman’s bread awaiting anyone who reaches the top of the staircase.
“Most of my professors sell exclusively to Shaman,” senior LSA Alicia Greenberg said. “I can’t necessarily complain though because all my books are in the same spot. It’s nice not having to run all around Ann Arbor to get a book.”
Despite the perennial lines that routinely stretch down the block, Shaman seems to have hatched into a market that few other bookstores can claim: loyalty. The store carries everything thing from the obscure, such as “Gender Articulated” by Mary Bucholtz and Kira Hall, required for Linguistics 394 to the popular with Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” for the English Department’s American Novel course.
“The academic community has always been very supportive of us,” Pohrt said. “They basically told me, ‘we could help you if you order our textbooks for us.’ In reality, we serve the professors better than we serve the students.”
But Pohrt was quick to point out that the reasons teachers order through Shaman isn’t out of mercy or for political reasons. According to Pohrt, the real reason that they choose Shaman is because frankly, they do a better job, and the readers seem to agree.
“The lines are annoying, no doubt,” sophomore LSA Jocelyn Kalmus said. “But at least I don’t have to elbow my way past half a dozen people to get a book. Once I get upstairs I know I can take my time without being rushed.”
In fact, the reason that Shaman won the best textbook store is also the same reason that it lost the best bookstore award. The retailer does not pride itself on selling the next Dan Brown blockbuster or Tom Clancy’s latest thriller. Those books won’t even be placed face-out on its shelves. It has what Kalmus calls, a “collegey” atmosphere.
“Many of the same books that we sell upstairs (with the textbooks) are sold downstairs in the store,” said Stephen Smith, textbook manager. “We’ve actually read a lot of the textbooks we sell to students. Some professors even find a book they will use for our class by browsing our shelves.”
Still, the textbook and the publishing industry as a whole continues to suffer as more books are sold online or in box stores (such as Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club) at cutthroat prices, often making it difficult to turn a profit. Hence, a new addition of a biology book is released every semester. As a result, Shaman has increased the number of used books sold as well as coursepacks. But these measures, according to Pohrt, raise ethical questions as well. When a book is sold used, the author and publisher receive no royalty fees. The line between profit and morality become blurred – an issue that the industry has yet to decide on.
“My responsibility to the students is to sell them the lowest rate books versus my responsibility to author to ensure them profit is something we have yet to decide on,” said Pohrt. “We don’t make much money but the reward really comes from being a part of this community and serving those that we know will appreciate our product.”