A Cultural One-Two Punch
Losing Bella Ciao and Shaman Drum
by Sally Mitani
In late May, a Boston lawyer and his client, in town for a few days of litigating, were standing in front of Bella Ciao. "These three restaurants," he said, peering at a piece of paper in his hand. "Any one of the three," indicating the great Liberty Street triumvirate of West End Grill, Bella Ciao, and Pacific Rim. "This is apparently where it's happening."
Now, there's a hole in the middle. Bella Ciao was scheduled to close on June 20 after twenty-two years under Jim Macdonald's ownership. Macdonald, the tall, avuncular, and slightly sardonic Scotsman, stood on the pavement every night greeting customers and often delivering salty opinions about the weather, the economy, politics, child-rearing, or anything else that happened to come up.
The day the news of Bella Ciao's closing broke in the Ann Arbor News, people on the street pointed and whispered gravely. One man in his mid-fifties who was married eight years ago in Bella Ciao's upstairs private banquet room actually cried when he heard the news.
But inside, Jim Macdonald was having none of the emotional doomfest, briskly explaining his reasons for shutting down: his youngest was out of college, he wanted to slow down, play more golf, and devote more time to Pastabilities, his pasta factory on the south side of Ann Arbor that he has owned since 2000. He was doing what he usually does at five o'clock, conducting staff dinner, an old-school European restaurant tradition. In a cross between a meeting, in-service training, and prework break, eight waitstaff sat at a round table in the dining room, tucking into a dinner whipped up from kitchen leftovers by line cooks. Macdonald was wearing old Bermudas and scuffed sandals which only marginally detracted from his clipped, authoritative presence. Each waiter had a wine glass. Macdonald poured a bit of red wine from a bottle concealed in a paper bag into each glass for a blind tasting. "Italian or American?" he demanded. Most guessed American.
"What grape?" he persisted. "Come on, you should know it from just smelling it." One said Cabernet, but most of them correctly recognized it as an American Pinot Noir.
At 5:10, a woman began vacuuming the dining room, and the staff dispersed to put on their work clothes. Jim went home to feed his dog and change his clothes before work.
Macdonald and his wife, Kathy, have sold the business to Brandon Johns, former chef of Vinology and the Chop House, and his wife, Sara. Their restaurant, the Grange Kitchen, will open in August.
Nowadays, just being an "independent" bookstore is a brand identity, but when Karl Pohrt opened Shaman Drum in 1980, there were different kinds of independent bookstores. He staked out the humanities territory, distinguishing himself from the nearby, trade book-focused Borders with his dense selection of books by university and small presses.
To compress a few decades of history into a paragraph: Borders became a publicly traded corporation with 1,000 stores; Shaman Drum expanded and began selling textbooks upstairs. When Internet and on-demand book fulfillment began eroding bricks-and-mortar bookstores, textbooks kept Shaman Drum on life support. The Drum's strength in the humanities, and role as a venue for many literary events, made it beloved by U-M humanities faculty, who often sent their students there for textbooks. But when U-M began requiring faculty to post, well in advance, ISBNs for required textbooks, students could buy even textbooks online, and Shaman Drum called it quits.
"It was more painful waiting for the ax to fall than when it finally fell," says Chris Stier, who has worked at Shaman Drum since 1992. Stier-she's the tiny, wiry woman with a thick white braid and an equally thick Boston accent-says it was a relief when Pohrt finally announced the bookstore's closing in June: "It was inevitable, and it was hard to lie to people." Pohrt planned to close at the end of June.
"Fortunately," says Stier, "the staff qualifies for unemployment. I'm fifty-eight, and [husband] Tom [Fricke] is going to be chair [of the U-M Anthropology Department], so what do I care? And a lot of the employees here are young enough so they have their careers ahead of them. We're all going to be fine," she says firmly. "It's going to be hardest on Karl."
She mentions Bella Ciao's closing-not the first person to feel it as a cultural one-two punch. "But look on the bright side," she says. "Tios pulled through!"
[Originally published in July, 2009.]