March 21, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Laura Berman

Battle is on to save Ann Arbor indie bookstore

"Despite the downturn in the economy and all the trash talk about the death of the book," Karl Pohrt intends to keep his shop open. (Daniel Mears The Detroit News)

Two doors from the site of the first Borders, Karl Pohrt plans to reinvent his own semi-historic bookstore.

His concept: The store evolving into a reading and writing center, his gift of a valuable resource to the community that he hopes could provide a new bookstore model for the 21st century.

His problem: He's running out of time.

"I'm giving myself until April 15," says the soft-spoken bookseller, who is trying to save a store that appeals to professors, writers and nontenured intellectuals of all stripes.

For 29 years, Pohrt has run the Shaman Drum Bookshop as a for-modest-profit enterprise, selling higher-margin textbooks upstairs that enabled him to stock the first floor with an eclectic selection of literary books.

"It's the kind of shop that makes Ann Arbor the unique place it is," says Catherine McCurragh, a store patron who delights in the ability of the staff to choose gift books.

But last month, Pohrt stunned customers when he penned his "open letter from a distressed bookseller," describing the store's plight to readers of the weekly Ann Arbor Chronicle and his blog http://www.thereisnogap.com">www.thereisnogap.com

Without quick capital, and an IRS designation as a nonprofit organization, the bookstore would die, he said.

As a past board member of the American Booksellers Association, Pohrt is keenly aware that indie bookstores are like Kirtland's warblers: Only a few, in select environments, still survive. Even large chains, like Ann Arbor-based Borders, which is up for sale, are grasping for revenue.

Suddenly, bankruptcy looms

"We thought we were in a manageable transition. Then, suddenly, we're facing bankruptcy," says the bearded Pohrt, who wears horn-rimmed glasses and is more likely to quote a Nicaraguan poet in casual conversation than, say, Tina Fey.

Pohrt's crisis is specific: When U-M began in August to enable students to easily order books online before school started, the impact was disastrous.

Sales plummeted by half a million dollars within four months, as students deserted his textbook stock. His genteel literary store had become, almost instantly, the bookish equivalent of the Tower of Terror.

Ironically, U-M had honored Pohrt and the store six months before with a two-day salute/seminar on campus, and Pohrt says: "There are no villains here."

He lost 10 pounds and called booksellers he knew around the country, trying to understand how they had solved, or failed to manage, similar crises.

Giving up was a possibility. But then, on a trip with his wife to Nicaragua, where she was a volunteer teacher, he met veterans of a literacy campaign, people who had risked their lives during a war to teach others to read.

That experience galvanized Pohrt:

"If these men were willing to risk their lives to teach people to read, the least I can do is to try to keep the bookshop going. Despite the downturn in the economy and all the trash talk about the death of the book, I intend to do just that.

Now he's working to get expedited approval from the Internal Revenue Service to operate Shaman Drum and the Great Lakes Literary Center, its educational arm, as a nonprofit enterprise. His research suggests that one other bookstore has made a similar conversion.

On Friday, he began seeking small loans from supporters, $500 each, that could be repaid over time in books at the store.

And the community is galvanized. An ad hoc group of professors, writers and booksellers -- including Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky, both U.S. poets laureate, and Milford-based poet Thomas Lynch -- have signed a letter vowing to "keep this ideal alive."

Vowing to help

When I interviewed Pohrt at an Ann Arbor coffee shop this week, art historian Catherine McCurrach recognized him and introduced herself, saying, "I want to help organize a fundraiser to save Shaman Drum."

"Students want to save a few bucks," adds John Bacon, an author who teaches two courses at U-M.

"But a lot of the professors care more about keeping Shaman Drum alive."

You can reach Laura Berman at (248) 647-7221 or lberman@detnews.com">lberman@detnews.com.

Bob Hart, left, of Shaman Drum research and development, and Karl Pohrt, ... (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)