“His eyes how they twinkled! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry … the beard of his chin was as white as the snow,” but instead of the usual bundle of toys brought by this mythical figure a table of books rests instead.
Many Ann Arbor residents have probably noticed the only outside stand on State Street – a book table run by Wystan Stevens. Stevens, whom many believe resembles Santa Claus, has been sitting outside selling books since 1994.
“We have a huge assortment (of books) at home. I probably have 100 cartons with 15 books in each carton. I’ve been collecting since I was a teenager. I would collect huge amounts of paperback books that I would buy at Ulrich’s bookstore. I even wrote an essay about collecting books. I started selling them out on the sidewalk in ’94. I thought I was getting rid of them but I (still) keep collecting them. These are all books I’d like to read if I had more time,” Stevens added.
He said that he has started at least 100 books while sitting at his stand. He adds sheepishly that he usually loses his place early on and throws the book down, never to finish it.
The native Ann Arbor resident said the stand has offered him a unique view of Ann Arbor. “(I like the) local color and sidewalk. It’s a lively town that gets livelier in the night. Sometimes you see famous people. I saw Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg … looking at the pictures on the wall behind David’s Books.”
He added that they were pointing at the picture of their friend Woody Allen.
“I really wish I had a camera then,” he said with a regretful smile. “I took about 75,000 slides of Ann Arbor, in total, in the 1970s.”
Recording Ann Arbor has become more then a past time for the book vendor. Stevens said he used to be the official Ann Arbor historian. As part of his interest in the city’s history he said he wrote a book abut Northfield Township and Whitemore Lake.
Now, although Stevens’ interest in history has become more of a hobby than profession, he recently was on a committee to put up glass historical markers around town. He also offers tours through the Forest Hill Cemetery.
“(It’s) a three hour stroll through Forest Hill Cemetery. (We look) at sculptures and famous people and tell stories about them,” he added.
Stevens said University students are also living history, as they have evolved over the years.
“I graduated high school in ’61 and from the University in 1970. I was here during all the student protests … Students now are more casual – I got in just when they stopped wearing suits. Women all wore skirts and sometimes gloves and men wrote white shirts and jackets, but during protests it got real casual,” Stevens said.
Stevens’ book business has transformed as well. In the beginning he transported cartons of books on a hospital gurney, walking with the gurney from his house to his stand every day. But because of a broken wheel he now loads his books onto a truck.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the price of the books. Although his wife thinks he should increase the price, Stevens remains staunchly against the idea. “If I could afford it I’d like to sell them for less, but most people are very excited to find a $2 book,” he said.
Though he said he recently suffered from a heart attack, the book stand is something he said is still up to his speed.
Many local people have patronized and walked past the stand over the years.
“I’ve never bought any (books) but I’ve been tempted. They always have a very good selection. That’s very interesting, the fact that he’s on the sidewalk. He obviously really likes books – out here selling on a corner is a very cool independent Ann Arbor thing,” LSA senior Kristen Bickle said.
Ben and Jerry’s Manager Ryan Woodard echoed Bickle’s support of the corner business.
“If he wants to sell books on the street he should. I like to see people doing their own thing instead of having a store and following regulations and everything,” Woodard said.
When asked what he would like to be remembered for, Steven’s gets a far away look in his eyes. “I guess I’d want to be remembered as the town character,” he says finally.
The night surrounds Stevens and his book stand as the summer breeze passes over State Street. The stands future may be uncertain, as he admits that every year he wonders whether or not he will continue with it, but for now Stevens sits perfectly content – his books spread around him – an Ann Arbor fixture.