With the economy mired in recession, conditions are bleak for Ann Arbor booksellers.
The Borders on Liberty Street, in the city where the company was founded, is the flagship store of what used to be one of the most prosperous nationwide retailers. Today, with massive debts and the company’s stock value dropping, bankruptcy could be in the chain’s future.
Just around the corner on State Street, Shaman Drum Bookshop is a different kind of bookstore. The small, mostly literature-oriented shop prides itself on its community focus.
But independent bookstores like Shaman Drum are facing troubles of their own.
The Ann Arbor Chronicle printed an open letter from Shaman Drum owner Karl Pohrt on Tuesday. Pohrt lamented the “disintermediation resulting from customers migrating to the Internet coupled with the frightening economic crisis.” He wrote that Shaman Drum started losing money in September.
Pohrt admitted, though, that he “sort of saw this coming.”
“The book industry in the United States, as a business model, really doesn’t work very well for anybody,” Pohrt said in an interview with the Daily earlier this month.
According to Pohrt, the convergence of three main trends — the falling popularity of books, the cost-saving convenience of Internet commerce and the state of the economy — foretell the fate of the already suffering independent booksellers.
Pohrt said that textbook sales in particular have been a drag on Shaman Drum’s bottom line, as more students buy their books online.
As a panelist on the University Textbook Task Force last year, Pohrt opposed the uBook program, which the task force ultimately recommended. It was implemented last November.
The purpose of the uBook program is to make textbooks more affordable by encouraging professors to publish reading lists on Ctools, where an integrated exchange system allows students to buy, sell and trade.
Task force members suggested that making required readings available in advance would help booksellers avoid expensive early-semester rush orders, potentially driving down prices.
Pohrt said uBook effects have been more harmful than helpful, as it only causes more students to do their textbook shopping online.
In the last two textbook rushes, sales have been “pretty terrible,” Pohrt said, adding that if textbook sales are to be continued at all, which is still in question, the selection would probably “specialize in courses in the humanities and some of the social sciences that are more analogous to the kind of books we sell on the first floor.”
Pohrt also wrote in the Ann Arbor Chronicle letter that Shaman Drum will be vacating the second floor, where textbooks are sold.
Pohrt applied for nonprofit status with the IRS last March, and while he’s confident that it will be approved, the application is still being processed.
“What I wanted to do was give my bookshop to the community,” he said.
As a nonprofit, the store, reincarnated as the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center, would be eligible to receive tax-deductible donations and government grants.
Shaman Drum hosts a variety of author events, readings, classes, workshops, discussions and parties. As the GLLAC, these programs would be expanded. Pohrt said this kind of activity makes the store more likely to receive grants.
Pohrt opened Shaman Drum in 1980, and he considers it a valuable intellectual and cultural hub in Ann Arbor. He said the change in business model is essential for Shaman Drum’s survival. Above all, he hopes that if he gives the shop to the community, the community will give back.
“If we’re not supported, we’re not going to be here,” he said.