Ann Arbor's Literati Bookstore raises $100,000 in two days to stay afloat

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Ann Arborites like to think of themselves as a bookish people, and this week they went above and beyond to prove that.

The city's downtown bookstore, Literati, closed two weeks ago on Friday the 13th because of the coronavirus crisis. Facing a mounting pile of bills that had to be paid, owners Mike and Hilary Gustafson launched a GoFundMe campaign Monday, with hopes of raising $100,000 to keep their dream afloat.

In two days, they raised over $107,000, almost all of it in small donations of $10 and $15.

Still overwhelmed, Mike Gustafson said they've been "just thrilled" with the response.

The money, he says, will enable them to keep their 27 employees on payroll through April, pay publishers, make their rent, and give them a little breathing room to figure out what to do next.

Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor.

"You can’t open an independent bookstore and not anticipate hard times," Gustafson said, "and we were always cognizant we'd face difficulties. But," he added, in a lament common to the entire business community these days, "never in a million years did we expect to go from fully operational to closed for months and months. And that’s the predicament we’re all in."

Literati, named Bookstore of the Year by Publishers Weekly in 2019, was about to celebrate its seventh anniversary March 31. It's a little ironic that the enterprise born just a few years after the 2008 economic collapse now faces yet another.

Back in 2011 when they were trying to get their business plan together, Gustafson says, they ran into a brick wall of skepticism.

"Family and friends just stared at us and held their tongues," he said. "Others told us we were nuts. Borders was closing, independent bookstores were closing. One landlord we contacted about a space said, 'If Borders couldn't make it, how can you?' Another just hung up on us."

But they proved the cynics wrong, opening up a handsome, two-story bookstore that in short order became one of the principal places in downtown Ann Arbor to hang out. A little while later they opened a coffeeshop upstairs.

Literati packed its calendar with events, book clubs and author readings, and largely succeeded in becoming the sort of community gathering place Mike and Hilary had always imagined when they moved back to Michigan from Brooklyn.

Hilary and Mike Gustafson, shown here with daughter Greta, opened Ann Arbor's Literati Bookstore in 2013 after they moved back from Brooklyn.

And indeed, people are passionate about the shop. When Literati closed March 13, they announced that they'd continue to sell online, with deliveries for just $1.

From the time they locked the door on Friday to the following Sunday night, the online store -- which ordinarily would handle five or six books a day -- clocked 700 orders, according to inventory manager Jeanne Joesten.

"Mike literally filled up the whole back of his truck with boxes and padded envelopes with books and took them to the post office," she said, before adding carefully that staff had, of course, all worn gloves while filling orders.

The bookshop's won friends in high places.

"I'm delighted people stepped up to help," said Mayor Chris Taylor in an email. "A great downtown needs a great bookstore, and Ann Arbor is lucky to have Literati."

Susan Pollay, executive director of the city's Downtown Development Authority, is also a huge fan and admits she gave to the GoFundMe campaign.

"They have one of the loveliest, most wonderful bookstores in the country," she said. "There’s an intimacy to Literati, and the people who work there are so knowledgeable. They love books and it’s infectious."

Keith Taylor, a poet who taught writing at the University of Michigan for years and also contributed to the online campaign, recalls the period about 10 years back when Ann Arbor seemed to be dropping bookstores like trees shed leaves.

"We were kind of desperate for a while," he said. "Nicola's Books (in the Westgate shopping center) did a good job, but they were far from Main Street."

Said Robert Caplis, a Chelsea native who recently moved back from Boston, "I think that's why people rallied around Literati, because they remember what it was like without a bookstore."

For his part, Gustafson, who's got two babies at home to feed, says he's confident they'll reopen, as long as the shutdown doesn't last into 2021. Still, for all his bravado, it's been a wrenching experience.

"The 2008-2009 crisis led to the deaths of a lot of independent bookstores," he said. "It’s going to be heartbreaking if after 10 years of mostly solid gains, clawing and scratching to rejuvenate the bookstore business, we're sucker-punched again and end up losing this community we've built."

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

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