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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

KARL POHRT REMEMBERED, by Tom Fricke

Karl Pohrt, Ann Arbor, MI

Shortly after Pohrt's death, Fricke, chair of the U-M Anthropology Department, shared these thoughts with his colleagues. They are reprinted here with his permission:

Dear friends,

I wanted to pass on the news, especially for those of you who don't check the Ann Arbor media, that Karl Pohrt, owner of the Shaman Drum Bookstore, died last Tuesday July 10 just before midnight. He was just 65. Karl was diagnosed with a very rare form of thyroid cancer last Fall -- late September or so -- and, after a period in which he participated in experimental trials as an outpatient at NIH, prepared himself for death in a brave and clear-eyed way.

I bring news of Karl's death to you because he was in the most essential way one of us, a lively and engaged member of our department community as surely as each one of us is. Many of you listed your course books with the Shaman Drum; many of you celebrated the publication of your own books at the store; many of you were probably told by one faculty member or another as you prepared your prelim bibliographies, "Go over to the Drum and look at the titles on the shelf. Begin there." But it never stopped at the book part of things for Karl -- he'd often appear at our talks and colloquia, be guaranteed to buttonhole one colleague or another at the store and take him or her for a coffee to talk anthropology, or continually ask those of us who he saw the most about where the discipline was going, what was new.

Rapid on the heels of Karl's dying, his family arranged the memorial for yesterday, in part as a gesture toward keeping down the crowds. In spite of this, about 300 people showed up to see Karl off. The sheer variety of those who came -- his family, of course, but also at least one dean, a good number of faculty, the largest single gathering of former Shaman Drum employees since the closing of the store, working people friends from Flint, artists, poets, leftie political types, spiritual seekers,members of his church, people who flew in on the shortest of notice from outside, people who fought and argued with Karl in life, people who regarded him as a teacher -- tells much about Karl all by itself.

The service included verses from Isaiah, from the Gospel of John, from Buddhist sutras, and enough song to rock the joint. All organized by Karl. Joe Summers and Geoff Eley spoke about Karl and his life. Keith Taylor read a poem by Gary Snyder. I read the Heart Sutra (wearing Don Lopez's tie with the sutra twined into its weave -- in Chinese). One daughter and a son-in-law brought it down to the family. It was Karl through and through.

Geoff's comments, in particular, came from over 30 years of friendship of the deepest sort, a friendship that dates from the birth of the store itself, when Geoff walked in and chatted with Karl, ending up going out for coffee. Through coffee, movies, and nearly daily conversations at times, Geoff grew to see in Karl a version in nearly pure form of the kind of big-hearted, giving, always generous community intellectual that could keep the academy moored to its best engagements with everyday life. Geoff recognized not only his friendship with Karl, but also his role as an exemplar, when he named his distinguished university professorship after his friend: The Karl Pohrt Distinguished University Professor of Contemporary History.

I go on at length so we don't forget. Karl and the Drum were vital parts of the life of this University, representing a vision of the tapestry, community and academy, into which we need to be woven. It is a threatened, perhaps irreproducible, reality approached so closely by this simple bookstore. The Drum in its heyday had a national, even international, presence (The Los Angeles Times headlined its story about Karl's passing as "Karl Pohrt, Legendary Owner of the Shaman Drum Bookshop, Dies at 65"). The sheer density of artists, poets, writers, scholars, and just plain folks you'd find in that tiny store on State Street is without compare. One day, you might be startled to find Patti Smith browsing the shelves next to you. Another day it would be Allen Ginsberg, or maybe Gary Snyder, or Jim Harrison, ducking into Karl's office. Visiting speakers at our department asked to find free time to browse the Shaman Drum. We used the Drum as a feature of our recruitment for new faculty and graduate students. It was a known and cherished place. Romances and steamy affairs, the planning of conferences, the parsing of theory, the debates of scholars, the free roaming of children, and maybe a glass of wine at a reading all jostled together among the books.

And Karl presided over it all with delight. This was what he wanted. This is what he would never compromise. The refusal to compromise his vision of the store is likely one of the things that led to its demise, since what others saw as terrible business decisions were linked to Karl's commitment to his vision of a bookstore as a community space. That business decisions based on such a vision can kill a bookstore is a challenge and a puzzle in need of solving.

And now Karl, too, has gone. I want to mark his importance to us, to hope somebody figures out a way to make his vision work, and to acknowledge the passing of this Zelig-like character who seemed to know everybody and to have been present at so much: an early member of Students for a Democratic Society, a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War, a lecturer called out of his classroom by FBI for questioning, a scrappy guy from Flint unafraid to throw somebody messing with his staff or books out of the store, a welcoming presence to others, a pacifist and a meditator, a lover of truly terrible movies...

Gary Snyder, after a visit in April, wrote in a note, "I'm grateful that at least I got a chance to visit again with him, and that it was a good day for him. He was remarkably present -- and warm, expansive, calm, and beautiful." Geoff and Joe Summers said much like this, and more, at the memorial.

And so, Karl is gone and those of us who knew him will miss him. I'd like others, who maybe didn't know him or didn't know the many parts of him, to wish they did.


posted by John Hilton at 1:28 p.m. | 0 comments


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