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Mike Gustafson and Hilary Lowe at their Literati bookstore, Ann Arbor, 2013

Liking Literati

The bookstore meets the social network.

by Sally Mitani

posted 5/5/2013

On March 31, Easter Sunday, "We flipped the 'open' sign at noon, and as soon as we did, we had three people," says Mike Gustafson, who with his fiance, Hilary Lowe, owns the Literati bookstore. "By mid-afternoon, fifteen or twenty people were browsing the shelves."

The death of Shaman Drum Bookshop and the slow demise of Borders tore a hole in the heart of Ann Arbor. Lowe and Gustafson think they can fill the void for a "general interest" downtown bookstore. They hasten to add: "Downtown has several specialty bookstores, and Nicola's is a quality general bookstore--but not downtown."

Lowe, twenty-seven, who grew up in Ann Arbor and worked in New York as a sales rep for Simon & Schuster, will manage the front of the house. Gustafson, thirty, is from Grand Rapids, has a background in film and creative writing, and will handle the marketing and social media.

Literati was leveraged into being with plenty of help on a number of fronts, including the Internet. The web killed Borders and Shaman Drum, but Gustafson used it to rev up customers months before Literati opened. He says his blog posts have a "reach" of 10,000 readers, and the store's Facebook page had around 2,000 "likes" by the time it opened. As for capital, Ann Arbor State Bank put its trust in the young couple after, Lowe says, "we fundraised from a number of family members to prove we could do it." The bookshelves are Borders' actual bookshelves, bought at auction after the downtown store closed in 2011.

And they've carefully enlisted the help of people you could call local book royalty, like Keith Taylor--a poet (and Observer contributor) who, before taking a faculty position at U-M, worked at both Borders and Shaman Drum. In April, he read from his latest poetry book, inaugurating what Lowe calls "a robust events schedule," an indispensable part of the indie-bookstore survival toolkit.

But the most important help came from Joe Gable, who

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calls himself simply "a friend of the bookstore." Gable was manager of Borders store No. 1 from 1974 to 1996, and it was his erudition, uncompromising standards, and sometimes prickly personality that gave Borders much of its flavor.

"Borders is impossible to replicate these days," Gable points out. In its heyday, Borders had 120,000 titles--Literati hopes to have 10,000. "But that was pre-Internet," Gable notes, "and people perhaps read more and differently. Just to have that amount of square footage is impossible these days."

Gable helped Lowe and Gustafson pick their inventory to make the most of their space, beginning with organizing a backlist for the literary fiction in which Lowe wanted to specialize.

"Backlist" is bookstore lingo for anything not recently published. Gable lists the questions he grappled with: "Do people still read what are considered great works? I like to think that you can't have a serious literature section without Balzac, or all of Dickens, or most of George Eliot. Let alone, should you carry Hermann Broch or Robert Musil--he wrote one of the great novels of the twentieth century, The Man Without Qualities--or Elias Canetti. Do people still read Stendhal? Fielding? Smollett?" In the end, many of Literati's titles were chosen by making lists from Gable's personal library.

"I like what they've done with the store," Gable says. "It has a lot of charm. It reminds me of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco." (Lowe cites Brooklyn's Greenlight and Minneapolis's Bookcase as her models.) "I hope that people will support it, along with Nicola's." But he injects a cautionary note: "People tend to talk a better game than they play. They jabber about 'won't it be nice to have a bookstore in downtown Ann Arbor?' and 'too bad that Borders and Shaman Drum are gone.' But will they go in to browse and then order something from Amazon?"

Literati, 124 E. Washington, 585-5567. Sun.-Wed. 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Thurs. & Fri. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-10 p.m. literatibookstore.wordpress.com    (end of article)

[Originally published in May, 2013.]

 

 
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