Four or five blocks from the Liberty Street location where the late, lamented Borders sprawled over 50,000 square feet is a much smaller bookseller. Its name is spelled out on the storefront in round, black and white replicas of typewriter keys: “L-i-t-e-r-a-t-i.”
Pushing the message further, the store logo features a vintage typewriter, and a sleek German machine sits on a table on the lower level, where a sign invites visitors to type out a message.
Michael and Hilary Gustafson, the married couple who own Literati, believe in a concept many have given up on — ink on paper. Many in this college town seem to as well, and the millennial passion for authenticity, via handmade, analog, quality goods, has helped.
In the post-Borders universe, Ann Arbor seems a hospitable location for independent bookstores. The city boasts some 10-11 bookstores, as well as a lively book festival in the Kerrytown BookFest, which drew some 4,000 enthusiasts last year.
The Kerrytown Bookfest will take place 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market.
Robin Agnew, president of Bookfest, owns and operates Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Book Shop with husband Jamie. The store, which carries more than 25,000 used and new mystery titles, was honored with the prestigious Raven Award last spring from the Mystery Writers of America for “outstanding achievement” in the mystery realm, outside of creative writing.
It’s the kind of store that carries everything from the edgiest new noir writers to old masters such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner, harder to find in public libraries.
Why do mysteries continue to enthrall readers? “It’s a plot and it’s resolved,” Agnew says crisply. “Good triumphs over evil so it’s hopeful, even though it’s about murder.”
New this year at Kerrytown is a breakfast Sunday morning (for ticket holders) featuring three Caldecott winners — the award for children’s book illustration. There is also a writer in residence, Tim O’Mara, who will give pre-arranged critique sessions with aspiring writers all day.
When the Agnews opened Aunt Agatha’s 22 years ago on Fourth Street, it looked like something out of the back alley of a Mickey Spillane novel. Their space had been an X-rated bookstore, with a blood plasma donation center across the street. The street looks prosperous today, although last winter’s polar vortex cut down on sales.
When Borders closed, Aunt Agatha’s hardcover sales spiked. “But then Literati opened, and that settled down; they picked up those customers,” Agnew says.
Writing a success story
It was March 2013 when the Gustafsons launched Literati. The couple helped assemble writer panels for Kerrytown and will be there Sunday, selling books.
The couple moved back to Ann Arbor (Hilary, 29, is from the city; Michael, 31, from Grand Rapids) in 2012. They had been living in the center of all that is locally sourced, artisanal and curated — Brooklyn, New York, and they believed Ann Arbor would support another bookstore, especially after Borders’ closing.
“People are tired of looking at screens all day,” Michael says. “The last thing they want to do is look at another screen when they read a book.”
In Brooklyn, it was part of the couple’s daily life to attend events at indie bookstores. After Hilary’s daily sales job at Simon & Schuster was done, she headed for an evening shift at Greenlight Books in Brooklyn to learn the retail end of the business. The couple saw Greenlight as a “super-curated, locally sourced” model for what they wanted to do in Michigan.
Sometimes it’s hard to convince bargain-hunters. “I heard someone looking at a book in the store, say to a friend, ‘Oh, don’t buy that, it’s cheaper on amazon.com,’ ” Hilary says. “Yes, ours is a retail price. But we bring foot traffic downtown, we let nonprofits use our space for free. Indie bookstores end up being community spaces. We have book clubs, cheese tastings, off-site events at the university, events at restaurants linked to cookbooks. We want to be a place where people can meet and generate new ideas.”
One thing you won’t find in the store are e-readers, although Michael says he believes there’s room for both print and digital books. “The days of the 50,000-square-foot bookstore is over,” he admits. “But a 2,000- or 7,000- or 10,000-square-foot bookstore is sustainable, with a robust event schedule.”
Fiction is the store’s best-selling category, and incredibly, poetry is No. 2. Hilary attributes that to poetry grads from the University of Michigan’s highly rated MFA program in creative writing.
Metro Detroit market
In Metro Detroit, independent bookstores can be found, but in scattered locations. In Detroit, John K. King Books at 901 W. Lafayette carries used books, not new. For a strong indie bookstore that sells new books, the most reliable has been the Book Beat in Oak Park.
The Book Beat can be hard to find, tucked in a strip mall at 26010 Greenfield, but for depth of knowledge of Detroit’s arts scene and children’s books, it’s hard to beat the husband-and-wife team of Cary Loren and Colleen Kammer. They were honored in 2012 with the prestigious Pannell Award for the work Kammer does with children’s books and authors.
Unlike the chain bookstores, Book Beat hasn’t gotten rid of its poetry section, and the selection of books relating to Detroit art, music and history is particularly strong. In 2012, the store’s 30th-anniversary party drew authors including Elmore Leonard, who sat happily at a table signing books to support his favorite local store.
Book Beat sponsors many signing events — on Oct. 10, it is co-hosting Tavis Smiley, who will talk about his new book on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in appearances at the Detroit Public Library and the Southfield Public Library.
As far as the health of indie bookstores, Kammer is postive about the future, which includes, to her excitement, the first Independent Bookstore Day on May 2, 2015. She and Loren and other booksellers have been lobbying hard for something like Record Store Day.
“There will be special limited edition books available then, and chapbooks,” Loren says. Book Beat also plans to have special Summer Saturdays next year. They’ll screen movies outside and have music and food. “We want to have as much fun as we can,” Kammer says. “It sounds nutty, but I think it’s workable.”
It’s tougher for a book lover in the city of Detroit, but there are niche bookstores such as art book purveyor Ditto Ditto opening up in Corktown, and signs of life along Livernois.
There, Pages on Livernois, a general interest bookstore emphasizing fiction, opened this week in the Livernois Community Storefront at 19410 Livernois, between Seven and Eight Mile — the area known as Detroit’s “Avenue of Fashion.”
Pages on Livernois owner Susan Connelly Murphy will sell books from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays for the month of September and, she hopes, October.
“Detroit is very under served,” Murphy says. Now 57, she worked for years in finance at General Motors. After earning a master’s in library and information science from Wayne State, she started to think about opening a bookstore.
Why Livernois? “I just saw the power of community here,” Murphy says. “The ‘Avenue of Fashion’ and the neighborhoods around there are very strong.”
Murphy’s permanent location will be 1,400 square feet in a building at 19344 Livernois, where she’ll be able to serve coffee drinks and food, as well. Extensive renovations are under way on the building though, and her opening could be bumped to early 2015.
“The primary thing I’m going to have is fiction, specifically literary fiction, general fiction and classics,” Murphy says. “I’ll also have a selection of nonfiction. I want to work with the neighborhood this month and figure out what they need. There will be plenty of Detroit-specific books.”
12th annual Kerrytown Bookfest
Ann Arbor Farmers Market, 314 Detroit
11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday
Featuring: Books for sale, food and gift vendors, and authors Tasha Alexander, Loren D. Estleman, Anna Lee Huber, Susan Elia Maceal, Simone St. James, Theresa Schwegel, Lauren Willig, etc.
Note: Although “The Art of” is in the name of all the panels, only some are about the visual arts.
11 a.m. Community Book Award presentation to Nicola Rooney of Nicola’s, who will be interviewed by Robin Agnew of Aunt Agatha’s.
Noon. The Art of Illustration with Caldecott medalists Chris Raschke, Erin Stead and Phillip Stead and Brian Floca, interviewed by Deborah Diesen.
1:15 p.m. The Art of Historical Romantic Suspense with Tasha Alexander (“Behind the Shattered Glass”), Susan Elia MacNeal (“The Prime Minister’s Secret), Simone St. James (“Silence for the Dead”) and Lauren Willig (“The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla”), moderated by Anna Lee Huber (“Mortal Arts”).
2:30 p.m. The Art of the Graphic Novel with Jim Ottaviani (“Primates”), Dave Coverly (“Speedbump”), Matt Phelan (“Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton”) and Matt Faulkner (“Gaijin: American Prisoner of War”), interviewed by Michael Jewitt of WEMU.
3:45 p.m. The Art of the Memoir with Mardi Jo Link (“Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm”), Sue William Silverman (“The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew”), Linda Hundt (“Sweetie-Licious Pies: Eat Pie, Love Life”) and Richard Gilbert (“Shepherd: a Memoir”).
Kerrytown Concert House
11 a.m. The Art of the Short Story with John Smolens (“Winter by Degrees”), Don Lystra (“Something that Feels Like Truth”) and Kodi Scheer (“Incendiary Girls”), interviewed by Douglas Trevor.
12:15 p.m. The Art of Architecture in Fiction with Charles Belfoure (“The Paris Architect”), interviewed by architect Dan Whisler.
1:30 p.m. The Art of Biography with former Detroit News reporter James Tobin (“The Man He Became”), Don Faber (“The Boy Governor”) and Lawrence Glazer (“Wounded Warrior”), moderated by Sam Thomas (“The Midwife’s Tale”).
2:45 p.m. The Art of Suspense with Loren D. Estleman (“Don’t Look for Me”), Michael Harvey (“The Innocence Game”), Theresa Schwegel (“The Good Boy”) and Elizabeth Heiter (“Hunted”), moderated by Detroit Noir editor Eric Olsen.
4 p.m. Detroit: The Art of the Comeback with Bob Morris (“Built in Detroit”) and “Detroit Resurgent” contributors Yul Allen, Janet Webster Jones & Gary Wozniak, moderated by “Detroit Resurgent” editor John Beck.
Noon-4 p.m. Kids activities, drawing workshops and stories.
Noon. The Art of the Small Press with Hannah McMurry (Harlequin Creature), Ken Mikolowski (Alternative Press) and Chad Pastotnik (Deep Woods Press), moderated by Lynne Avedenka.
1 p.m. “I Love Books” talk with Ann Whitney, introduced by Barbara Brown.
2:30 p.m.: Flag Book workshop with Cecelia Escobar.
3:30 p.m.: Tunnel Book workshop with Debra Golden.