I like locally owned businesses —
they are part of the reason I love Ann Arbor. Locally owned shops
and restaurants help to give the city its own unique flavor. But I
do not like the Shaman Drum Bookshop. In fact, let me go so far as
to say I hate the Shaman Drum bookshop. Shaman Drum is the most
confusing-ass bookstore in the entire world. I do not like shopping
there. If I had a choice, I would not shop there. I do not like the
Shaman Drum Bookstore.
Grumbles I have about the store include the following: First,
the physical layout of the store creates one of the most confusing,
frustrating and irritating experiences students will encounter at
the University. Most stores merchandise and organize in a
consumer-friendly format, creating an environment conducive to
browsing and buying. In typical “color outside the
lines” fashion, Shaman Drum has instead organized its store a
bit differently. There is an upstairs and a downstairs, each
accessible from the street. To buy your textbooks at Shaman Drum,
you must go upstairs — only upstairs, because as its staff
will pleasantly remind you, there are no textbooks downstairs.
Once you are on the upper floor, where all (or, as the case may
be, some) of the textbooks live, you’ll find that it
isn’t laid out like a normal bookstore. Instead of large,
open shelving areas in which students can maneuver, shop and browse
for their books, the upper floor is a labyrinth of narrow
corridors, with small shelving rooms interspersed in between.
Laminated arrows and taped off hallways help guide you through the
twisted series of rooms, and because these corridors are so narrow,
they quickly jam up with students. Browsing is impossible and
patience a scarce commodity, as crowded students move in a line
like cattle, struggling to pick out books they need from the myriad
small rooms and hallways.
Second, when I see the words “bookstore” on the
outside of a building, I immediately think of a place where one
trades money for books — a book store, right? For such a
store to make money, they must actually have books for people to
buy. For most “bookstores,” this doesn’t seem to
be an issue. Shaman Drum? Invariably, after dealing with the long
line and the jammed interior, one finds out the following: a
necessary book is out of stock. Now, I understand that it is often
hard to predict student demand for a particular textbook, but,
should you be in the textbook business, you must have the textbooks
in stock, in the quantity necessary for each course. At other
bookstores, if the book is out of stock, you can go to another
store and have a solid chance at picking it up. But because
professors who order through Shaman Drum only order through Shaman
Drum, if it’s out of stock there, you have to wait days or
often weeks before it comes in again.
But Shaman Drum has survived, and will continue to survive,
because it does have one trump card: It’s a locally owned
bookstore. What does that actually mean? Well, it means that some,
including a number of professors, feel that it is ethically and
economically superior to shop at a “locally owned”
business. Though I suspect that the shift manager at Ulrich’s
or Michigan Book and Supply would disagree strongly with this point
of view, it is nonetheless the reason why some University
professors insist on only ordering their books through Shaman
The result: In comparison with other bookstores on campus,
Shaman Drum provides sub-par service, convenience and selection,
and because its customer base has been guaranteed, it has little to
no reason to ever change. Locally owned businesses are great, but
what makes them great is an ability to use their grassroots
structure to provide unique, often superior services — to use
their local knowledge and connections to offer a superior product.
Some will fail in this regard, but others will survive, not simply
because they are locally owned, but because they are better stores.
Shaman Drum has managed to quietly dodge this bullet year after
year, its market share secured by charity and its customers unable
to shop elsewhere.
Do Shaman Drum a favor: Instead of remaining blindly loyal to a
store because its owners are locals, hold it accountable to compete
with everyone else — in the marketplace. As it stands,
students are forced to shop at a store that is unable and/or
unwilling to compete at the same level as other bookstores.
Shouldn’t professors order books through a vendor that makes
it easy and convenient for students to buy their books? Shaman Drum
might actually have to (gasp) compete for business, and students
might actually (gasp) get their books easily and on time.
What a concept.