Every year, on the first day of classes, the workers dress in drag in honor of a Shaman Drum employee who died from AIDS (and in his youth had a penchant for dressing in drag). The current staffers at the bookshop dress up to dish out information about safe sex and raise AIDS awareness. “It is a way of remembering this man and also trying to prevent anybody from getting a sexually transmitted disease,” Karl Pohrt, Shaman Drum’s owner and founder said quietly.
For Pohrt, his bookshop has never been about making money, but rather about making Ann Arbor into a smarter, more interesting place. “I think that is very important . to take the idea of citizenship very seriously. I think partly that is colored by having grown up in Flint, and seeing what happened when the auto industry collapsed . wherever you live you should work in part of the community and defend the community.”
As the current president of the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, former president of the State Street Area Association, and member of the board of directors for the American Booksellers Association for eight years, he is no stranger to community involvement. The owner is also proud of the time spent organizing the fledgling Ann Arbor Book Festival and the Ann Arbor Reads program. He even works with the Washtenaw Living Economy Network Alliance, and the store helps fund the University Library Student Book Collection Contest. Right now, he is actively involved in a program called World Reads, where sellers promote books in translation as a way to facilitate knowledge and understanding across language and geographical boundaries. He is constantly on the go with projects many would consider peripheral to running the bookshop. It’s clear that he feels being a shop owner in Ann Arbor imparts a certain responsibility.
During the last 25 years, Pohrt has watched his bookshop expand from a single room upstairs on State Street to the two-story staple of the Ann Arbor literary community. Shortly after opening his doors some professors visited the new shop and started ordering their textbooks through him, convinced the store wouldn’t make it any other way. This practice has given the store stability and allowed Pohrt to use the bookshop to improve the neighborhood and facilitate a community of smart, informed readers. “A really first-rate browsing store in the humanities . wouldn’t be possible without the textbooks,” Pohrt explained.
He noted that textbook sales are changing – fewer books are being purchased. This reaction from students shouldn’t be ignored, he said, expressing interest in forming an alliance with the student book exchange.
With competition from large chains such as Borders, and now internet vendors such as Amazon.com, Pohrt is still convinced his store brings something those others can’t. “If you take a walk through the first floor of the shop, you’ll see books faced out there that you don’t see faced out in any other bookshop in the United States. It is an eclectic collection, but I think a really interesting one.”
Pohrt also said that a bookshop such as his was, “pretty ghettoized in terms of American culture, (and) the American entertainment industry in general.” He gives back to the city while realizing that his own store relies on the city’s commitment to serious literature. “A store like this will rise or fall in terms of whether or not the community supports it and understands what we are trying to do.”
“We are a bookshop with a point of view – we are not a general interest bookshop. The point of view is scholarly and academic. Maybe the politics are somewhat left of center . but everybody’s welcome. It is not like this is exclusive to a certain demographic,” Pohrt explained. The shop carries 35 categories of books, and all are hand-picked with certain scruples in mind, “There are two ways to do retail: to meet the needs of the community and to help shape the needs of the community. And we are trying to do a little (of the latter). (We want to say that) it is worth your time to read this book.”
It took Pohrt a while to realize that it wasn’t enough to be passionate about books and expect a bookstore to succeed. With all of the competition from other forms of media, it is important to remember the other aspect of running a successful venture. The shop owner did admit that it took him a while “not be contemptuous of (those) who know how to manipulate money (or) how to be good businesspeople. That’s not easy, and I have a lot of respect now for people who can (do that).”
Pohrt loves running the store and believes in the in its usefulness for the community. He is not certain what the future will bring for the shop after he retires, but he has a few ideas. “I would like the bookstore to outlive my tenure. I’ve thought about offering it to my employees. I’ve thought about turning it into a not-for-profit and giving it to the community.”
He said he really enjoys selecting the books the shop sells. Despite the uphill battle against the larger stores, it is evident he believes in his store. “Every day that I put the key into the lock . and it is open, I consider a success. To be able to do a bookshop that is this eclectic and idiosyncratic in this community is a triumph . that I live in a community that supports this (is great). When you go around the United States . it (has) become a rarity. The community should be proud to have places like (Shaman Drum), the Ark and Michigan Theater . all those amenities in addition to the University that make the cultural life here really vibrant and exciting and wonderful.”