Column: Open Letter from a Distressed Bookseller

Owner of Shaman Drum: "This is our darkest hour"
Karl Pohrt

Karl Pohrt, owner of Shaman Drum Bookshop.

This fall and winter Shaman Drum Bookshop went into a steep financial decline. Textbook sales declined $510K from last year. We managed to cut our payroll and other operating expenses by $80K, but that didn’t begin to cover our losses.

There was some good news. Our trade (general interest) book sales on the first floor were actually up in December from last year by 10%, which is extraordinary given what many other retailers were reporting. And trades sales in January were up 15%. Still, this hardly compensates for our losses in textbook sales.

The evaporation of our position has been astonishingly swift. We had been holding relatively even financially until September. Suddenly we’ve moved into the red.

I sort of saw this coming.

In July, 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts published “Reading At Risk,” a report detailing the decline of literary reading in America. This was followed by a second report in November, 2007, “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence,” chronicling “recent declines in voluntary reading and test scores alike, exposing trends that have severe consequences for American society.”

Around the same time the NEA reports came out, I audited a University of Michigan course on the History of the Book in which I learned that every 500 years a major technological shift occurs. Five centuries ago Gutenberg invented (or perfected) moveable type. Now, with the digitization of print, we find ourselves in the middle of another sea change. I recall wondering what the new business model for bookstores would look like, and I worried that our industry would suffer from the same chaos roiling the music world.

And a few years ago the University Library held a conference on Digitization. I was invited to be a panelist and I defended the traditional book as still the most efficient technology for delivering information. I also said I was worried about collateral damage during our forward march into the joyous digitized future. I’m no Luddite, but everyone there seemed to me to be hypnotized by the new technology. Of course, it is dazzling.

In my own retail neighborhood I’ve watched the collapse of Schoolkids Records, an awesome independent record store, due largely to the impact of digitization, and it looks like I’ve got a front row seat on another sad decline. Borders Books, which I think at one time was the best general interest book chain in the English-speaking world, is a shadow of its former self and seems headed for oblivion.

Early this fall I told a group of booksellers that our industry (including the publishing sector) had a business model that didn’t work very well for any of us. A few of the booksellers said they didn’t think this was true, the others were silent.

Two weeks ago I met again with booksellers and publishers from around the country at the American Bookseller Association’s Winter Institute. Now everyone seems to agree that the book business is in trouble. The disintermediation resulting from customers migrating to the internet coupled with the frightening economic crisis makes it terribly difficult for us to see a way forward.

The crisis at Shaman Drum Bookshop is due to our loss of textbook sales. This fall the university introduced a program which allows professors to list their textbooks online, which effectively drives a significant number of students to the internet. It is impossible for local textbook stores to compete under these circumstances. I don’t think there are any villains here (well, maybe some greedy textbook publishers), but this is one of the consequences of the university’s policy.

The efficiencies of Amazon – even given the clever algorithms that bring us if you like this, you’ll like that – are no substitute for browsing in a bookshop.

In 1942 the economist Joseph A. Schumpeter said, “Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in….”  This is our system and Schumpeter is undoubtedly correct, but there is a countervailing fact that is equally true: Stability is essential for a civilized society. The second truth is what I’ve learned selling books in this community for forty years, being married for thirty-seven years and raising two children.

It also seems to me that if we are witnessing the collapse of Big Capitalism, the way to revitalize the economy is through supporting locally owned businesses. If you agree, please lend your good energy to Think Local First, the movement supporting locally-owned independent businesses in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County (

What Is To Be Done?

Shaman Drum Bookshop is around one hundred steps from the central campus of the University of Michigan, one of the top ten public universities in the world. I believe the university community and Ann Arbor citizens who love literature need a first-rate browsing store for books in the humanities in the university neighborhood. This is what we aspire to be.

However, as I mentioned earlier, it has been clear to me for a while now that the current model doesn’t work. In March 2008 I announced my wish to give the bookshop to the community. I hired Bob Hart, a recently retired Episcopal priest, to research the feasibility of forming a nonprofit bookshop. We wrote up a careful business plan, met with a good lawyer, filled out the IRS forms and submitted our papers in July. In November the IRS notified us that our application was still under consideration. The review is taking longer because a for-profit business is a component of the project.

The new entity is called the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center, whose mission is “to develop excellence in the literary arts by nurturing creative writing, providing quality literature and fostering a literate public.” We’re already hosting two classes in the store. If we do not survive this downturn, I hope the Great Lakes Literary Art Center will continue under other auspices. It is a good idea.

Last week I consulted a lawyer and a financial advisor. They both felt the store could manage the debt load with some temporary help from our friends and a bit of luck. My landlord, who is a decent man, will allow us to keep our first floor space, vacating only the second floor of the building.

The issue now is this: After we scale back the store, do we still have a viable business? I asked my business manager to crunch the numbers based on our projected sales for the next two years. He reported back that we do not have a sustainable business model. Given our current sales projections, we will continue to lose money.

This means very simply that we would need additional revenue sources/streams to make the store viable.

For many booksellers – certainly including me – this is our darkest hour. I know this sounds melodramatic, but that’s the way it feels to me in the middle of the night when I’m trying to figure out how I can possibly make this work.

If I can’t figure this out, the most realistic and responsible thing I can do is shut the store down and move on.

The question then becomes: What is the next version of a bookstore? This is something worth thinking about carefully. Like you, I want to live in a community that has many good bookshops. But then I’ve been spoiled living in Ann Arbor.

Whatever happens, I am filled with a sense of gratitude for having been able to sell books in this town for the past 29 years. It’s been absolutely wonderful.

Karl Pohrt is owner of Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor, which opened in 1980. He is a former board member of the American Booksellers Association and a leader among the nation’s independent booksellers. The Karl Pohrt Distinguished University Professor of Contemporary History is named in his honor, recognizing his work in fostering relationships between the community and the University of Michigan. 


  1. By Steve Bean
    February 17, 2009 at 8:53 am | permalink

    It doesn’t sound melodramatic at all, Karl. What can I or others do to help?

  2. February 17, 2009 at 9:04 am | permalink

    Same as Steve…what can we do to help?

  3. February 17, 2009 at 9:30 am | permalink

    I feel for you Karl, but I’m also pretty darn conflicted on this one, and have offered some extended thoughts at the link above.

  4. By mk
    February 17, 2009 at 10:19 am | permalink

    I feel troubled by your situation, but I have never bought anything at your store, and I buy a lot of books. Parking is too difficult, and I buy mostly used books. Have you considered getting into the used book business, a la Powells? I have been selling my used books to them and getting credit to buy other used books. There’s no place in Ann Arbor that does this.

  5. By Dan
    February 17, 2009 at 10:21 am | permalink

    as Karl speaks as a long time business owner, i can concur life is difficult for any of us who operate a small business, especially in Michigan. I feel for Karl just like i feel for any business that is struglling financially. Whether you are operating a bookstore, restaurant, a contractor, etc. business has never been more challenging (I have 30+ years as a small business owner). the consumer wants local, yet wants convenience, including cost competitive products. these are challenging times, i’m confused on what the solution may be. seems like perseverance, saving money in good times for times like these and communicating to the customer are some of the traits to operating a successful business.

    best wishes Karl!

  6. By Mary Morgan
    February 17, 2009 at 10:41 am | permalink

    Here’s the link to Jim Carty’s Paper Tiger No More blog, mentioned by him in post #3.

  7. By Kate
    February 17, 2009 at 11:05 am | permalink

    I have to say as a book lover and a former bookstore employee that I have never really felt welcomed at Shaman Drum. Each time I entered I got the feeling that I was entering an elitist enclave and was not welcome. Despite being filled with books it never felt like a bookstore to me. And having worked in downtown A2 for over 10 years, I know that the feelings I have about S.D. are not unique.

    S.D. has a lot of literature, but has done nothing to appeal to the wider general audience. And if you have a small focus you limit your chances of success. I have worked at several independent stores and the key to their survival is finding the balance between the popular and the quirky/intellectual that A2 says they want.

  8. By Rose
    February 17, 2009 at 11:22 am | permalink

    To MK: Shaman Drum does sell used books — on and other online venues. Most of the books are used, non-returnable textbooks, or are slightly damaged.

  9. By Vivienne Armentrout
    February 17, 2009 at 11:38 am | permalink

    I, too, am sad about this and agree with Mr. Pohrt’s comments about the value of physical bookstores and the importance of local businesses. For that reason, I buy most of my books at Nicola’s, sometimes at an additional cost compared to Amazon (though she has a customer reward program that offsets this).

    However, I have a slightly different perspective – that of the publisher. I worked for a few years for a small local publisher, then became one myself to sell a botany field guide that I edited and published. I sold that as both a trade book and textbook for 8 years, through college bookstores, independent trade book stores, and Amazon. Here’s a startling fact: there is no money to be made in publishing books. Textbooks are different because they are sold to a captive audience. Textbook publishers who jack up the price to an unreasonable level and come out with “new editions” only to beat the used book market can certainly be criticized, but they are merely responding to market forces in a very strange business.

    Bookstores order books on a discount from publishers. They keep those books for a certain period, then ship the unsold copies back, sometimes shelf-worn, for a return credit. Or often, they don’t pay at all until they have shipped returns, and pay only for the sold copies. Or sometimes they just don’t pay, unless the publisher makes several phone calls. (I regret to say that that was my experience the one time I sold books through Shaman Drum.)

    Borders started a custom of requiring a 55% discount from publishers and then took as much as a year to return books, often damaged, with a very difficult long form and process for claiming damages. They also held payment for many months, paying only after the returns had been registered. With my previous employer, one of my most unpleasant tasks was the repeated calls to their accounting message machine, begging for payment. For that reason, I always refused to sell my own book to Borders except on a prepaid, special order basis.

    Borders also was an early influence on the rush to discounted books that made it difficult for small bookstores to keep an inventory (they could not demand a 55% discount) and ultimately spawned Amazon. Book prices have been inflated because of these strange economics. I held the price of my book down out of principle, but I understand why most textbook publishers have inflated theirs. Remember that the author is often under the delusion that he/she should be paid for the work involved, and printing a quality book is a fixed cost that is borne upfront. The costs in marketing and shipping books is the same whether they are returned or not.

    I sold through Amazon, too. At first they bought inventory, but then I sold through their Marketplace. Orders for my book were placed to Amazon, and paid for immediately. Then I shipped them. It worked for everyone, though the customer did not get a discount.

    Many major publishers are now in financial trouble and some have actually said that they will not produce new titles. I hope that the industry survives, because I love books.

  10. February 17, 2009 at 11:44 am | permalink

    i was reluctant to say it, but since kate said it first, i feel the same way about shaman drum: i have purchased a few books there — as recently as a week ago — but i have never been able to get past the feeling that i … don’t belong there.

    i suspect it has a lot to do with the name of the store … i don’t connect with shamans or their drums. (is that wrong?)

  11. February 17, 2009 at 12:03 pm | permalink

    Like many of the other posters, I am a book-lover who buys many books and frequents downtown but over the years has never felt at home at Shaman Drum and has never bought a book there.

    It sounds to me as if Shaman Drum has never had a viable business model except for the textbook business, which is basically a function of your terrific location — Steve & Barry’s could have probably done the same thing, if they had got there first.

    What is the next version of a bookstore? Something that pays its own way from day 1, for starters. And it will have an Espresso POD machine with helpful,intelligent humans — maybe researchers, like a live version of Yahoo! answers or Wikipedia?

  12. By Jim
    February 17, 2009 at 12:14 pm | permalink


    For one, I don’t think Shaman has any books on “shamans or their drums”. Something tells me you haven’t been to the store?


    I have to disagree. I feel Shaman has a great balance between “quirky” and “popular” to make Shaman unique.

    I appreciate the fact that their stock mainly consists of award winning/amazing books. Everytime I go there an employee can always recommend something after I stated what I liked. I’ve never been disappointed.

    Everyone has their preference I guess…

  13. February 17, 2009 at 1:47 pm | permalink

    This is really interesting to read. I am not a huge “new book” buyer, mainly because I am rather frugal. But I have bought new books at SD (and Nicola’s) and never got an unwelcome feeling there. (Or maybe I did and I’m just too oblivious to realize it :)).

    So…I guess I would ask what could be done to make folks feel more welcome?

    FWIW, I sometimes feel awkward at Border’s. I never can find my way around and I sometimes feel dumb when I ask for directions or help with finding something. I am the first to admit that I could get lost in my own bed, though.


  14. By WhitneyT
    February 17, 2009 at 1:58 pm | permalink

    Fred (#11), I believe you’ve just described a library :).

  15. By Rita Laurance
    February 17, 2009 at 1:58 pm | permalink

    I think its a shame that students don’t want physical books from their classes. I still have my Chaucer from my first English class in college, complete with all the original notes and underlines with which I documented the lectures and my thoughts-and I really wish that I had many more of my original college texts. They were extremely good books, and well worth reading many times. If you depend on online sources, you aren’t going to have that luxury, unless you download texts into your computer system- and then print them out.
    You also won’t have particular editions, with particular editors or commentaries, and those are also (sometimes or often, take your pick)worth their weight.
    In other words, I think that the University is making a mistake.
    Rita Laurance

  16. February 17, 2009 at 2:01 pm | permalink

    Tp – It’s too late. This quick self-selected sample of downtown book-lovers shows pretty clearly that SD has been missing the mark with a large chunk of their prime market for a long time. Time to move on to reinventing the book business !

    I do believe there will still be a place for independent, high-quality bookstores, but they are going to need to move into higher-margin products and services. As Vivienne noted above, one key issue with the publishing and bookselling industry is that you don’t make very much money per book, which forecloses a lot of the business models that make sense for other types of goods.

    I would say that publisher, bookseller, and author together typically make less profit on a single $24.99 book than Proctor and Gamble makes on a single $14.99 64-oz container of liquid soap.

  17. February 17, 2009 at 2:15 pm | permalink

    As a long time Ann Arborite I have cherished Shaman Drum for the simple reason that it felt like a physical expression of its owner, Karl Pohrt. Like Karl, SD is truly local and of its place and time. It is intellectually stimulating, sometimes maddeningly contrarian, but always interesting. Both are mission driven, and they strive to do the right thing no matter how difficult. I can understand the very human impulse to assign blame to the bookstore for not being what it wasn’t, and thus absolve ourselves of guilt if it goes under. But the truth is the publishing industry is changing fast and furious and after all these decades of being a good citizen of the State Street Area and the community in general, SD is in trouble, like so many other independent bookstores across the country. It’s not clear what can be done about it, so I’m going to do the one thing I can think of to do – I’m going to go to the shop this afternoon and buy some books…

  18. By Sara
    February 17, 2009 at 2:28 pm | permalink

    Actually, I’m with Kate and Peter. I’ve gone in the Shaman Drum a handful of times and never felt that comfortable. Maybe I’m just a product of a generation that prefers uncluttered displays and a broad selection… but I also get the vibe from the employees and customers that I’m not hippie-enough to hang out at Shaman Drum. I’m a voracious reader and make every effort to buy locally instead of online, but for me ‘locally’ usually means choosing Borders or Nicola’s. Yes, I said Borders — even *big* locally-based businesses need our support. Borders contributes to our community’s tax base and provides many jobs both in the stores and at HQ, and beyond that they are friendly to a much wider audience than Shaman Drum is.

  19. February 17, 2009 at 2:48 pm | permalink

    ” absolve ourselves of guilt if it goes under” – seriously? I mean, I honestly like Shaman Drum. I’m going to try and go in an buy a book just because of Karl’s letter next time I’m downtown. But feel guilty? That seems a bit much. Should I feel guilty about Chrysler as well? I mean, they’re local, and I keep trying to nurse more miles out of my Ford with 145K …

  20. By Vivienne Armentrout
    February 17, 2009 at 2:49 pm | permalink


    I think when he says that the University allows professors to “list their textbooks online”, it means that students are still buying physical books, but from online vendors like Amazon. The practice in earlier years was that students had to go to an approved textbook store and ask what books were assigned for a particular class.

    I still have some of my college texts too.

  21. By Renoir Gaither
    February 17, 2009 at 3:31 pm | permalink

    As a S.D. lover, one who has purchased many books there, and who has had students purchase books there, I am saddened by the crisis surrounding the store. There are many reasons for the current downturn, many discussed in previous posts. Independent booksellers have historically been on tenuous ground when it came to competing with the big box stores and online retailers. And given the national economic conditions. . .well, is it any wonder S.D. appears in the red? I can say I don’t know of any other Ann Arbor bookstore with similar range of literature titles and odd, interesting social science books. And the authors who frequently read there are astonishing. Shaman Drum epitomizes what an independent bookshop is all about. S.D. is in the same league as City Lights Bookstore in San Franciso, Changing Hands in Tempe, Arizona, Prarie Lights in Iowa City, and many others. National treasures all. Community gathering places. Places where the mind can wander and grow. While the necessity of literacy seems secure, the sheer love of reading has waned. Yet, we can ill afford to make this bookstore a museum–not just yet.

  22. By Lon Mendelsohn
    February 17, 2009 at 3:50 pm | permalink

    I no longer live in Ann Arbor, but I retain fond memories of the various new and used bookstores that I frequented over the years. I am old enough to recall the predecessor of Shaman Drum, which I believe was called Paideia Books, from which I ordered several books in the late 1970s. I never bought anything from Shaman Drum, but I visited from time to time and recognized it as an outstanding scholarly bookstore. While I understand the feelings of those who “never felt that comfortable” in the place, I think that you have to take Shaman Drum for what it is: a small, very focused, scholarly bookshop catering to the needs of a slice of Ann Arbor’s academic community. It’s not supposed to be comfortable for everyone.

  23. By EricS
    February 17, 2009 at 3:55 pm | permalink

    Books are dead.

    There, I said it. OK, maybe not today, but the writing is on the wall.

    I remember telling a friend in the photo processing business how digital cameras were going to do away with film. He laughed every year as film sales grew until, well, they plummeted. The same will happen for books. The Kindle, Sony Reader, and other eBooks are just the tip of the iceberg. In 10 or 15 years books will go the way of the LP.

    The same is happening to newspapers right in front of our eyes. I am about to cancel a Free Press subscription I’ve had for 33 years.

    I have been part of a dying industry and it’s a very bewildering feeling. You feel like you’ve wasted time and effort. The world seems strange. And, yet, things that you learned along the way will be useful in other endeavors.

    I hope you do well, but the simple reality is that books are the past and eBooks are the future. There will always be a market for old books, but new books and courseware will all be electronic. The only question is when. Plan accordingly.

  24. February 17, 2009 at 4:18 pm | permalink

    Eric — when someone comes up with a flexible, super-long-battery-life, super-light, 600 dpi screen resolution, CMYK color, PDF-capable, 8 x 10 wireless tablet, I will be all over it. that’s going to be a while — although 15 years might not be a bad guess!

  25. By anisoptera
    February 17, 2009 at 4:27 pm | permalink

    I love browsing and you can’t really browse well on Amazon. I still miss Schoolkids because I found great new (to me) music from the staff suggestions. Shaman Drum is a special store and I for one don’t want to have only cookie cutter chain stores to go to.

  26. By Dharma
    February 17, 2009 at 4:42 pm | permalink

    I’ve always like Shaman Drum–in particular, they always have interesting authors there to talk about their books. I’d be sad to see it go. That said, I always buy my textbooks online because it’s cheaper. Textbooks are not something that I really need service (like a knowledgeable salesperson) for since they’re just required. So, I don’t usually think about where they come from, just how i can save money on a student’s budget. I feel bad saying that, because I really do want to support local, but it’s true.

  27. By lisa
    February 17, 2009 at 4:57 pm | permalink

    I am both a native Ann Arborite as well as a University student. I have fond memories of going to the original Borders as a child, but have absolutely no memories of Shaman Drum. In fact, the first time I was there was only a year ago, and would have to agree that there is some kind of weird uncomfortable feeling that other people have referred to. On other occasions that I’ve been there, I’ve found the staff to be fairly helpful, but overall I feel like I’m a burden to them because I making them do actual work.
    I have also noticed how students grumble when they hear that ‘textbooks can be purchased from shaman drum.’ Professors seems to know that students do not like this place because they often justify their reasons as to why they choose Shaman Drum over some other place. Often it’s because they support local business (which I agree is VERY important), but then add in that Shaman Drum is fairly good at getting used textbooks (this is when the students grumble).
    I am not trying to bash on Shaman Drum, and feel terrible for their situation as well as the situation of countless other booksellers- I’m just trying to throw in a few of my own observations, which may or may not have had an impact on Shaman Drum’s overall success.

  28. By Scott Martin
    February 17, 2009 at 5:02 pm | permalink

    Fred: go look at the new Dell XT2 tablet PC. It’s not flexible, of course, and I have no idea what your definitions of “super-long battery life” and “super-light” are, but this suggests that current technology is otherwise not too far off from delivering on your wishes.

  29. February 17, 2009 at 5:31 pm | permalink

    Fred, I think the world needs more books on the definitive history of torpedo boats.

  30. By Linda Diane Feldt
    February 17, 2009 at 6:06 pm | permalink

    Shaman Drum supports authors (mostly local and mostly associated with the university) in ways that few other bookstores have. I have mostly been there for readings and parties. The author parties create a connection that is invaluable. And with wine and cheese and crackers available for the “guests” I’m pretty sure people who attend the author readings feel pretty welcome and happy to be there.

  31. By Bill Kumbier
    February 17, 2009 at 6:11 pm | permalink

    I’d very much like to echo the comments of Renoir Gaither and others who have written positively and sympathetically about Shaman Drum. I am 56 and grew up near Ann Arbor and, though I did not attend the University of Michigan, I have many rich memories of a vibrant State St. in the 1960s and 1970s, with a range of independent shops, including SKR Classical, now long gone, and Borders when it really was a bookstore. Shaman Drum is just about the only survivor I admire from that era and I still shop there whenever I visit my family in Michigan three or four times a year (alas, not enough to be regarded as a “regular” customer). The poetry section is distinctive in the midwest and I always enjoy browsing among the titles specially displayed at the front of the store. The only discomfort or guilt I’ve ever felt at Shaman Drum was that of not having read or being able to read as much as I’d like. Living in the book desert of Joplin, MO, I envy those who have such a fine independent bookstore down the street and who have a very good reason in Shaman Drum not to resort to! If there is anything stirring at the grass roots level to help save the store that movement will have my support.

  32. By Pete
    February 17, 2009 at 7:26 pm | permalink

    I’m having a hard time understanding the comments about feeling uncomfortable at Shaman Drum. When I read the first one above I was shocked, it had never occurred to me that someone could feel uncomfortable there. It’s a couple of big rooms with books, it’s got a wide variety for its size and the employees leave you alone unless you ask for help — how could anyone who likes to read be uncomfortable? Wondering if someone who made those comments could pin it down more clearly. Did you have a bad experience, or what is it that turns you off?

  33. By Marvin Face
    February 17, 2009 at 9:08 pm | permalink

    I buy lots of books (5 bought this past Sunday should last me two weeks) and I usually buy at Borders after researching online. Sunday I spent $30 more on those 5 books at Borders than I would at Amazon. To me Borders still means the old store on State but now with more non-book items.

    I’ve lived in Ann Arbor for 24 years (did not attend UM) and I’ve never been inside Shamen Drum. I tried to think of why I have never been in and the only thing I came up with is the name of the store. All the people that went inside and didn’t feel welcome? I looked at the name and didn’t feel welcome, I guess.

  34. By Carrie
    February 17, 2009 at 11:30 pm | permalink

    In his article, Karl Pohrt cites losses in textbook sales as the anchor pulling down his literary ship, so I say cut it free. The textbook floor is not what makes Shaman Drum such an important part of this community, and I would argue that it is not the part of the store that we should fight to save. I agree with several of the comments made above regarding buying textbooks online. These arguments, though, are part of a bigger discussion about a problematic publishing industry, the decline of the economy, rapid changes in technology and the ways we communicate, and poor college students. Karl is not to blame for any of these things.

    Perhaps the textbook floor is the most lucrative part of the store, which makes it possible to sustain the many other great initiatives going on there. It’s all this other stuff that I value most about Shaman Drum, especially the community events like author readings, writing groups, courses, workshops, etc. The reading series is absolutely invaluable to the literary community here. You have to admit, some part of Ann Arbor would die without Raymond McDaniel, his epic introductions, and the many nationally-renowned, prize-winning authors he and Karl bring here.

    One of these authors, Gary Snyder, spoke at the Writing in Public conference last year about how independent bookshops provide a home for writers as they travel around the country. I would take this argument even further and claim that places like Shaman Drum provide essential hubs around which writers, artists, scholars, and other community members can gather to share their work, time, and ideas.

    I am not an economist. I value things that exist on the margins, people who are underrepresented, nonstandard lifestyles, and deviant art—everything “the mass market” is not. I disagree with the idea that “the market” should decide the fate of everything in this country, including Shaman Drum. (If everything was based on the opinions of a fickle and stubborn mainstream public, our country would be in even worse shape, I’m afraid. Slavery? Women’s suffrage? You get the idea…) People who are in the minority should be represented and have spaces of their own. This is a basic part of a democracy.

    Writers, artists, and scholars are certainly a minority in this country, and I would argue that the same holds true in Ann Arbor, despite the town’s left-leaning tendencies and artsy reputation. Shaman Drum provides for so many of us the place that Gary Snyder advocated for in ways that big chains and online stores cannot. In this frightening time when news about the economy grows darker each month and arts programs and education are the first things to go down, keeping Shaman Drum and places like it going is more important than ever.

    I sincerely hope that Karl can get his non-profit up and running in time to save the institution (that’s what Shaman Drum has become in Ann Arbor: an institution!), because it would hopefully allow him to keep all of the important parts of the store afloat while better-negotiating the parts that are becoming problematic. And, in an effort to support this place that I value so much, I went to Shaman Drum today and bought a book, and I encourage everyone to do the same. Best of luck, Karl!

  35. By Jeff
    February 18, 2009 at 4:30 am | permalink

    The answer is clear. Get out of the textbook business. Do textbooks even meet your mission of being a “first-rate browsing store for books in the humanities in the university neighborhood?”

  36. By BlueStudent
    February 18, 2009 at 7:12 am | permalink

    Indeed the issue here is the decline in textbook sales. It is sad that the store might have to close, but it has been a sad state of affairs for everyone suffering through this economy.
    As a Michigan student I cannot say the University made a mistake by creating the early textbook posting feature. It’s amazing to be honest. I saved hundreds of dollars this semester alone by buying my books online. For four classes I got 11 books for $140 on eBay’s
    As a contrasting textbook experience, I did have one class which the professor refused to post ahead of time, thus by the time we received the textbook list the class had already begun and we had no time to buy online. The only store on campus to carry said books was Shaman Drum, I ended up paying $230 for 3 books for this one class. Their used textbook selection hasn’t been extensive in my experience either.
    I understand it is not entirely Shaman Drum’s fault that their prices are so high, but I must admit I’ve been irritated with their monopoly on campus of the social science textbooks since I was a freshman. Of course I’m not happy to see them having such financial difficulty, but the University shouldn’t end the early textbook list feature just to save a local business and force its livelihood to rely on already cash-strapped college students.

  37. February 18, 2009 at 9:24 am | permalink

    The issue is textbook sales, but not quite the way posters are interpreting it. From OP’s own account, Shaman Drum was a textbook business with a bunch of unprofitable sidelines grafted on. Now it is just a bunch of unprofitable sidelines. That is a bummer, but now OP is correctly trying to figure how to make the sidelines support themselves. More power to him!

  38. By Patricia Lesko
    February 18, 2009 at 9:37 am | permalink

    I can respond to Karl (whom I know as a neighbor) as a publisher. The model under the auspices of which Karl’s business has thrived for many years has changed dramatically. He’s, sadly, in good company. In the MARCH 2007 issue of Inc., (link) there was a very interesting feature about an independent bookstore owner who got all kinds of help from a group of “experts” (marketing, management and operations people, for instance) in order to rescue his business from similar problems that Karl faces. They couldn’t do it. The business model under which Karl’s store has been able to turn a profit has eased to work.

    My business decisions are one of the reasons Karl’s business model doesn’t work anymore. I own a publishing company that serves higher education. Karl’s store relies on discounts from publishers like us of up to 55 percent when he orders books; he might not pay his bill until he sees how many of the books have sold (distribution companies take returns from shops like Karl’s for up to one year, in some cases), and then he returns what didn’t sell for a refund. I’d love to have those terms from my suppliers.

    When we bought our book publishing company, I looked at this system and decided it was just insane. (We’d published a national news magazine for college faculty for 14 years.) Why should we give the Karls of the world free credit over obscenely long periods of time? Joe Upton at Malloy was giving me 30 days net. Our magazine and web page advertisers got 30 days net, or paid in advance for a discount.

    Why should we discount our books 55 percent to booksellers? We rarely discounted advertising rates. I saw Houghton Mifflin give us a straight 20 percent discount, Indiana University Press, too. If they did it, why couldn’t we do it? So we did.

    Why did we have to take returns in perpetuity and risk having the books damaged or lost? If a retailer bought 10 books, I figured, the books belonged to the retailer and the money belonged to us.

    So, I changed the terms. Our company gives retailers a 20 percent (short) discount and we don’t take returns. Our business has grown 45 percent in the last four years. Not a single bookstore or distributor has balked at our terms (including Baker and Taylor, a notoriously dictatorial entity). In the professional publications I read for book publishers, and at the conferences I attend, I meet more and more publishers who are moving toward the model we adopted four years ago.

    As I see it, Karl rode a long wave, made enough money to put his kids through college, pay his mortgage and take vacations every year. He’s ready to retire soon. The wave crested, and broke, and Shaman Drum is headed straight for the rocks. Now, Karl’s trying to make his own waves, or convince others to make some waves for him so that he can keep riding. Shaman Drum’s niche went away. When that happens, businesses adapt, regroup or close.

    I suspect the certificate of nonprofit status that Shaman Drum is waiting for is an application sitting on the desk of some IRS clerk who is scratching her head and trying to see how, just how, Shaman Drum bookshop, owned by an individual for so many many years, is suddenly a non-profit entity. It’s a hard sell, I imagine.

    Of course I wish Karl well, and I know he’s the kind of guy who always lands on his feet. Shaman Drum, on the other hand, may very well end up a memory, much like the Argus Company.

  39. February 18, 2009 at 9:43 am | permalink

    Scott — I am well aware of Tablet PCs — I attended Microsoft’s alpha stage Tablet SDK meeting and had a first-generation Motion Tablet– but IMHO there is still a long way to go for Tablets to approach the readability and portability of paper. That is to say nothing of paper’s instant-on feature, complete absence of [electronic] bugs, and [sometimes literally] bulletproof security compared to Windows Vista Tablet PC Edition …

    What I don’t like about the current generation of e-readers is that the e-book manufacturers are forcing major design and readability compromises on publishers–a classic example of technology-driven product development. What publishers want and need is to be able to display e-books using the universal publishing standard for high-quality design display: PDF. You simply can’t present a design-driven title like THE DEFINITIVE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF TORPEDO BOATS (for Anonymouse’s sake!) in device-independent dumbed-down HTML.

    As you may know, the current generation of book readers uses the E-Ink technology, which currently does B&W 800 x 640 on a flexible substrate. They project that color E-Ink devices will become available no earlier than 2011. Hi-res is important: readability studies shows that paper with 600 dpi is the gold standard. a 600 dpi 8 x 10 page is 4800 x 6000 pixels, which is still a pretty big image even for today’s computers.

    I suspect that E-Ink devices capable of displaying hi-res PDF will be ~ 2015.

    What does this mean for publishers and booksellers? For publishers, it means a (losing) struggle with e-book manufacturers over their share of the revenue pie. For booksellers, it means less revenue from simply delivering physically encoded books to people, and figuring out a way to move up the value chain–which I think is what Karl Pohrt is planning to do. I like the idea of a bookstore as a salon, but if I look around at other industries it seems that continuous physical presence is a more difficult business model to operate than old reliables like personal appearances, training classes, and consulting services.

  40. February 18, 2009 at 9:52 am | permalink

    Incidentally, my publishing company relies on a very similar model to Patricia’s — it is indeed a growing trend. A good introduction to these new approaches to publishing is Aaron Shepard’s AIMING AT AMAZON, and a good place to learn more is the discussion group

  41. February 18, 2009 at 10:31 am | permalink

    The University’s online textbook initiative was intended to help students and local bookshops at the expense of wholesalers and publishers. If it didn’t work out that way I’d be curious to know why.

    The main push was to get the list of required textbooks out sooner. UM was getting the list out so late that the used book market couldn’t operate efficiently. According to the Provost’s report, local booksellers were buying books from students, then sending them to a wholesaler because they didn’t know whether they’d be able to resell those books.

    Under the new system, the list is supposed to be available before the end of the previous term, so when a student goes to sell a book, the value of that book can be accurately assessed. So the local bookshops can now be more efficient at buying and selling used books, and students can buy these books at a lower price.

    A Google search for “ann arbor used textbooks” turns up Shaman Drum as the first result, but I can’t tell how well the site works because it’s closed for the winter. I would expect a local bookshop with a good web site would have the advantage over places like Amazon. I’d like to know why this isn’t working out.

    And for what it’s worth, I too have never felt comfortable at Shaman Drum. My favorite local book store used to be Afterwords. Now I tend to shop at Border’s or West Side Books, but get most of my reading material at the library. I don’t go to Nicola’s much because I don’t consider it local.

  42. By barbara
    February 18, 2009 at 10:44 am | permalink

    Great article – sad topic, but well done Mr. Pohrt. What a sad statement on the world today. There’s nothing like buying a great book and feeling the texture of the cover and the pages inside. I plan to go to Shaman Drum this weekend to buy some books!

  43. By Ed Campion
    February 18, 2009 at 11:09 am | permalink

    With Billions in bailouts for Wall St. and rusty industries I think we need a humanities bailout. Not just for The GLLAC but for all similarly situated in order to make them a renewable viable sustainable resource for our children and grandchildren.
    I agree with Carrie:
    Writers, artists, and scholars are certainly a minority in this country, and I would argue that the same holds true in Ann Arbor, despite the town’s left-leaning tendencies and artsy reputation. Shaman Drum provides for so many of us the place that Gary Snyder advocated for in ways that big chains and online stores cannot. In this frightening time when news about the economy grows darker each month and arts programs and education are the first things to go down, keeping Shaman Drum and places like it going is more important than ever.

  44. By Dave Askins
    February 18, 2009 at 1:26 pm | permalink

    Thanks to readers who’ve generously contributed their perspectives along with all manner of information on this topic so far. It’s a terrific thread.

    I’ve deleted the previous comment [44], because it, as well as some responses in the moderation queue, threaten to send the thread down a path of meta-discourse squabbling amongst commenters. I’ve deleted those comments from the moderation queue as well.

    A couple of points from the policy:

    1. Commenting is encouraged.
    2. Commenters are not required to use their real name, just to pick one and stick to it.
    3. Being generous is meant to apply to the effort you invest in your own contribution to the thread (add information, add a different perspective, write something reflective, take another commenter’s idea and expand on it, take another commenters’s idea and explain in logical steps why it’s wrong.) It also doesn’t mean that you have to write long. It also doesn’t mean you have to say something nice.

    In any case, if you find yourself so irritated about the quality of someone else’s comment that you need to comment on that specifically, I encourage you to communicate that to us at The Chronicle, and we’ll review it and perhaps send a short note to the commenter to “cut that out.”

    Thanks. Carry on.

  45. By catherine
    February 18, 2009 at 1:36 pm | permalink

    The first thing I did on reading this was place a giant special order with the Drum of books I’d been wanting for a long time but had put off getting.

    The second thing I did was click on the link so that I could give them some money, but it’s not a live link.

    Our local organization supporting local businesses has gone out of business? Say it ain’t so!

  46. By Mary Morgan
    February 18, 2009 at 1:48 pm | permalink

    It ain’t so – I noticed the problem with the Think Local First website as well, and contacted their director, Ingrid Ault. She said she hoped to have it up and running again soon.

  47. By Jim
    February 18, 2009 at 3:09 pm | permalink

    Thanks Dave for stepping in as moderator. This has been a very interesting thread to read.

  48. By Mark
    February 18, 2009 at 3:45 pm | permalink

    Well, I agree with Kate (waay above). I have lived in Ann Arbor 28 years, and have spent more dollars on books than anything else, except groceries, housing and autos. I have been inside SD perhaps twice. The store just doesn’t cater to what I’m mostly interested in, which is photography.

    I should also relate that a good friend of mine has been self-publishing some amazing books over the past 9 years, and is an esteemed behaviorist, lecturer, and now emeritus faculty. He took a couple of his books to SD to see if they might be interested in carrying them. Instead of taking a serious look and so forth, he felt he was given the run-around and left feeling that he’d never go back. So much for local authors that might not be “in the club.” Maybe there’s another side to the story, but that’s what I was told. Now, to be fair, authoring books isn’t the way to get rich (unless you are some popular figure and get a big advance from a publisher), and selling them can’t be any picnic, either. One would think that given the location of SD, one could be a success selling doormats, so the downtuen in textbooks must be a huge blow. Even though I may not shop there, it’s good for Ann Arbor to have bookstore diversity. We don’t realize how “rich” we are here. Go live in the UP for a while and you’d know there is exactly one bookstore in the entire UP that has something other than a few popular titles and magazines. In Ann Arbor, we have at least 10…

  49. By HarveyF
    February 18, 2009 at 4:18 pm | permalink

    This sounds like a socialist experiment that went wrong. The text book sales were propping up (subsidizing) the actual interest of the store. When the producer (earner) went away the store’s actual interest failed. It’s simple really. And, it’s kind of a microcosm of what we will be facing in near future with regard to the USA’s economy.

  50. By jack sprague
    February 18, 2009 at 4:47 pm | permalink

    I feel obligated to say that I’ve been in town a year and never went into Shaman Drum though I am a book hound.

    I’m not drawn to shamans or drums (rather dislike drums, actually) and so never was drawn into store simply because of the name. Knew a fellow who claimed his uncle was a juju man once. Saved his toenails in his desk drawer. Wore only his raincoat on laundry day.

    I expected some Whole Earth rendition of books in print. Maybe their selection was different. The name gave me no clue that I might find something more mainstream than a text on interpreting cave paintings or the construction of a sweat lodge.

    I think I have zoning restrictions on both. And chickens. I have zoning restrictions on chickens.

  51. By Dan Romanchik
    February 18, 2009 at 5:09 pm | permalink

    I think it’s kind of ironic that this discussion is taking place online. The Internet really does change everything.

    I’m curious as to how they expect to survive as a nonprofit. What is going to be the nonprofit’s reason for being, and are there going to be enough donors to make up for the lack of profits?

  52. By Pete
    February 18, 2009 at 7:45 pm | permalink

    jack sprague: ‘The name gave me no clue that I might find something more mainstream than…’

    Just curious, does “Border’s” or “Nicola’s” give you a clue about what kind of books you’ll find inside? Still seems odd to me to not go into a store because of its name.

  53. By amber elle
    February 19, 2009 at 12:36 am | permalink

    I can comment as a former UM student (late 90′s) and later as a textbook employee on the second floor.

    While I was a first-year student, I grumbled at having to go to the Drum as there was always a long line. As years went on, I learned how to avoid the line. However, no one ever wasted my time on the text-book floor. One person could show me where my three classes were shelved, what classes were cross-referenced, they knew what titles were out and when the titles were expected in. Of course there were always better employees than others! But I was always astonished that anyone could keep all those books straight. If you have never seen it, imagine small oddly-sized rooms with textbooks stacked floor to ceiling, with more titles being shelved or re-stocked all the time. I was always quite impressed with the whole chaotic yet orderly vibe of the second floor maze. You really did need your own guide.

    Which brings me to my employment at Shaman Drum on the textbook floor. I have never seen a store more committed to their customers. I’ve seen them take back books, at full-return price when the student has already started high-lighting sections when the prof. decided to change out the title. I have seen the managers be so kind and forgiving to prof’s who didn’t bother to place an order till after classes started (in winter semester the weather can delay deliveries for weeks) and then turn around and pay for express shipping. I admit they were not perfect and sometimes they made mistakes too, but usually it was the Drum who would pay in order for the customer to feel satisfied, prof. or student. I know there are more instances, but I remember clear astonishment at what the second floor would take in order to keep a customer satisfied.

    I can tell you it is not every business that is so dedicated to customer service. Even in the years after I was an employee, I never felt uncomfortable reading a whole magazine on the first floor. The staff is chill, so as to give us freedom to browse uninterrupted. If people are feeling unwelcome in that store, it comes from within. The store is designed so you can find a little corner and browse the titles you are considering. Forgive them for not being in your face trying to pull questions out of your head. Get over yourselves and don’t blame the store for your own uneasiness.

    Last comment is on the local impact this will have, not on the book-buying community, but on the students and locals who have worked there for whatever number of years. I was hired on during book rush, which is 3-5 weeks around the beginning of fall and winter semester. I can only estimate I would be working along side 12-15 people during any given day. I am sure that no less than 40 would be hired on at a fair hourly wage with almost unlimited hours to work in, as the store extended into 12 hour days to get as many people in and out as possible. In thinking back, I have many fond memories of how all the employees would ban together to serve as many people as efficiently as possible. Cleaning up after close and re-stocking books, eating the free bagels and we would all bring in coffee or tea to share.

    People would come back into town just to work for a month at Shaman Drum, make bank, then go back to whatever it was they were doing before. The camaraderie was unique to the second floor. You really made some friends if you could make it through the rush. Then, based on your competence as an employee during the rush, and your willingness, they might ask you to stay on after the rush. I even remember getting a holiday bonus at the end of the year from Karl himself. I hadn’t even been working there for 3 months and he gave me the same as everyone else at my level.

    I wouldn’t say Karl was my friend, or that I had more respect for him than any other human being, but no one can deny this fact: he helped a great many people by paying them a fair wage to work in his weird store. People shouldn’t be talking about his personal life or what he has done with his profits, they should look at the impact he has had on the local community, regardless of the future of books.

  54. By Lisa
    February 19, 2009 at 9:42 am | permalink

    “…but I also get the vibe from the employees and customers that I’m not hippie-enough to hang out at Shaman Drum. I’m a voracious reader and make every effort to buy locally…”

    I agree completely.

  55. By Liz Johnson
    February 19, 2009 at 11:31 am | permalink

    Maybe if he let the business consultant, the lawyer, the financial advisor and tax man go, and get busy putting some books away, his business wouldn’t be in such financial straits.

  56. By Jim
    February 19, 2009 at 2:08 pm | permalink

    To everyone who says they didn’t step in to the store because of the name – are you guys thinking of Crazy Wisdom? That store is full of the stuff you are talking about and it’s definitely not Shaman Drum.

    I agree with Pete, Nicola’s, Barnes and Noble, and Borders doesn’t give you any sense of what types of books are in there.

    When I first walked past Middle Earth I thought I would only find Lord of the Rings stuff, but thankfully I was wise enough to walk in and find an amazing store.

    Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. I’m just saying….

  57. By Jim
    February 19, 2009 at 2:13 pm | permalink

    Amber your post was amazing. Thank you for writing that.

    I too have worked Shaman Drum book rushes. Even though people seem to think that the employees there were “too hippie” or “too high brow” I would have to totally disagree.

    Since when did reading tons of books for pleasure and information become stuck up? The people who work there are trying to help you. Not look down on you.

    I would suggest people who haven’t been in there before, or have only gone in once and didn’t like it to go back. Try it again. First impressions can be rough, but I encourage you to go back and try again.

    I can tell you what I don’t like – Borders employees who have to wear headsets. Talk about a corporate vibe that weirds-out the customers….I feel sorry for them!

  58. February 19, 2009 at 5:47 pm | permalink

    I am no expert, but it occurs to me that perhaps he can do what every other small business owner does in tough times, tighten the belts.

    If he got busy and put some books away and let go his staff of lawyers, accountants, non profit advisors and stocked something people actually wanted to read, things would go better for him, eh?

    I tried SD several times, the staff was generally unfriendly and they seemed to be bothered when I asked where something was located.

    Getting tax exempt status is like asking for a government bailout.

    All of a sudden SD is exempt from paying any taxes, including sales, personal or property tax, a benefit not afforded any other bookstore in the region. How is that fair?

    SD would pay no taxes to the City for police or fire. No taxes to the schools and no taxes for roads or parks.

    Hey I have worked in the bookstore business for some 15 years. I understand all too well how tough it can be to run an independent bookstore.

    I cry every time an independent goes under.

    But making them tax exempt doesn’t help. It only transfers the tax burden onto the rest of the businesses and taxpayers in the community who are already struggling to pay some of the highest taxes in the country.

    Any successful business is an example of Darwinism. Those that can change and adapt to shifting customers wants and tough economic times will survive. Those that can’t go under. Sometimes it is best to close, cut your losses and move on.

    Asking for tax exempt status is saying to the community, I have done nothing wrong, my business is great, the only reason I can’t survive is because the taxes in this community are too high. If that is the case, then all of us need to demand lower taxes.

    Me, I am happy with the taxes I pay. I don’t want to pay more, but I am willing to keep paying what I do now. But if the IRS is going to give a break to SD, I want that same break.

    I just want to compete on a fair playing field and one way business is kept fair is we all pay the same taxes. If I make $10 and you make $10, we both expect that we both will pay the same tax.

    Once we don’t pay the same taxes, then the government is now in the business of picking winners and losers.

    Given the success of things like Water Street and Wireless Washtenaw, government is not very good about picking winners.

    Just a thought,


    – Steve

  59. February 19, 2009 at 6:59 pm | permalink

    Karl Pohrt –

    I wonder if you feel like writing another column for (or maybe doing an interview with) the Chronicle! I imagine almost everyone who has tuned into this thread would be interested in your reaction to the discussion.


    Fred Zimmerman

  60. By Marvin Face
    February 19, 2009 at 9:25 pm | permalink

    “To everyone who says they didn’t step in to the store because of the name – are you guys thinking of Crazy Wisdom? That store is full of the stuff you are talking about and it’s definitely not Shaman Drum.”

    Oh yeah! Crazy Wisdom! No…that’s not it. I’ve never been in there either for the same reason, I guess.

    To Jim and Amber: You ever been to one of those stores where the workers seem to be be having such a great time socializing that you feel uncomfortable bothering them or even feel you are in the middle of something? Now, I haven’t been in SD, but Amber’s letter made me think of that kind of situation. Maybe this is why people felt uncomfortable?? Just a thought.

  61. By Lou Glorie
    February 20, 2009 at 11:33 am | permalink

    My main concern here is for my own personal loss if Shaman Drum goes the way of the dodo. I hesitate to universalize my loss, but, I cannot help but feel that a place that has offered me many serendipitous encounters with other minds–afforded to me simply because I passed by the window, saw an intriguing title, opened the door and spent a couple hours(yes hours)piling too many books on the counter–is not valued also by other wanderers.

    I agree with Carrie that the text book division is a goner, but, I’m wondering if the surplus space could be used to allow informal encounters among the strays. The strays being the local writers and poets, performers and carriers of dog-eared dreams of an earthbound intellectual commons. To this end, Karl’s idea of his business as a nonprofit makes sense. The service his bookstore offers should not be trivialized. I’m thinking of the atmosphere at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, where we browse and wait for space on a dusty couch. The couches needn’t be dusty (thank you) but the value is in the spontaneous combustion of ideas meeting and conflicting and refining one another, escape from the intellectual onanism that plagues electronic media.

    I feel an elegy coming on, not only for the loss this represents to a business owner, but a lament for a bygone conviviality.

  62. By Eric Boyd
    February 21, 2009 at 6:24 am | permalink

    I love bookstores as well, but I’d point out that even the advantages of a knowledgeable staff can be replicated, at least in part by the Internet. If you’re looking for a salon and the face-to-face interactions with other literary-minded customers, then the local bookshop has an indisputable role. But, if you’re looking for a regular stream of new recommendations from quirky, unique, knowledgeable personalities supplemented by unsolicited comments from like-minded “customers,” then bookmarking a few carefully selected blogs that allow comments accomplishes much the same result and can create much of the same “community of like-minded readers” feel. Moreover, such online communities allow me to join them while on a layover in Denver or when I wake up before the kids at 5 AM, for example, and not just when I have a free afternoon in town (a rare and precious commodity).

  63. February 21, 2009 at 6:17 pm | permalink

    Karl is not alone in finding it difficult to make a bookstore profitable – the entire book business is in the midst of financial problems as evidenced by layoffs at many publishers, at Publishers Weekly and at other local book companies. Businesses have to respond to market changes, and sometimes there is no longer a place for a given type of business, however welcoming or well run it may be. It may be that local independent bookstores are on the endangered list; I have to face this issue too, I do consider myself local! My response has been, as Karl’s was, to slash fixed costs and to do whatever I can to keep my customers feeling that I provide value to them. When they cease to believe that, the business dies – sad but true.

  64. By MDinTraining
    February 22, 2009 at 11:37 am | permalink

    I was an undergrad at U-M,and worked for a downtown business before going back to med school. I must say,that despite being a typical Ann Arborite, I was never treated properly by the Shaman Drum staff. Customer service was poor- downright bad at times. I once asked if they and a copy of the book by KC Johnson and StuartTaylor which analysed the whole Duke Univ Lacross team-alleged rape fiasco. The woman at the counter, instead of look in the book up, chided me,and called me a racist for inquiring about that particular book!!!! on other ocassions, i have seen the staff talk down to blue-collar people who had come into the store. Other times, I have seen staffers so busy reading their books, or chatting on the phone, or surfing the web or taking to fellow staffers, that they couldnt be bothered to help a customer.
    With that kind of attitudes and that low level of customer service, it is no wonder that the Drum is folding.
    A little less arrogance wouldhave gone a longway in making the Drum a wonderfully welcoming store.
    For comparison,just go to Nicola’s Books. The difference is obvious.

  65. By Chris
    February 22, 2009 at 3:34 pm | permalink

    I’m surprised there are 64 comments on here. It’s kind of amazing.

    It’s also disconcerting that there is such a large divide amongst the experiences at Shaman Drum.

  66. By Crile Wood
    February 22, 2009 at 4:24 pm | permalink

    I enjoy Shaman Drum, but books have been over-hyped and oversold. Every book carries the quote that it is “the greatest book since….” I think the lit world has lost its luster via overexposure and over production. A book no longer seems like a guide to enlightenment. Instead, books of fiction are just outlets for personal angst and positional non-fiction shifts with the cultural and political directions of the times. Books are going the way of Beatlemania. Can anyone imagine Beatlemania in today’s world? She Loves You, no,no,no

  67. February 22, 2009 at 5:59 pm | permalink

    Who are these people shouting gleefully that books are dead? If you are that happy about it, you never loved books. Who cheers at a funeral?

    I have a blog and lots of social networking accounts. The more I use them, the more I see that the internet stinks.

    I love my Treo phone, but I wouldn’t trade all my books for a free kindle. Be real.

    Books don’t really have the annoyances that the internet has (spam, identity theft, porn-spam, etc). Why exactly should we be glad if they are to go?

  68. By Vivienne Armentrout
    February 22, 2009 at 10:08 pm | permalink

    I’m glad that Nicola chimed in. Nicola’s Books is as local as you can be – a singular bookstore owned by a person who lives in our community. She gives to local charitable organizations, invites local authors to speak – what else?

    Not mentioned in this long thread – what is the effect on Shaman Drum of the problems in parking near State Street?

  69. By Vivienne Armentrout
    March 12, 2009 at 12:34 pm | permalink

    I stopped in today at Shaman Drum and was greeted at the door by a pleasant salesperson who immediately found the book I was looking for. (I found a second one too but then had to leave quickly because there was a tempting display of more books on the same subject.)

    The Maynard structure was full at 11:15 a.m.; fortunately there was still meter parking available on Division.

  70. By jla2mi
    March 13, 2009 at 12:22 pm | permalink

    Having worked for small, independent bookstores in Ann Arbor for many years and, even more to the point, being a voracious reader of books I cannot help but have the same concerns about the book world as Karl. The same confusion, also-what is going to happen with the book industry? Books are a HUGE part of my life. I support the local community with not only my purchases but also, for decades, my choices of employment, having forseen the alternatives. It is not too late for everyone concerned not only with the state of independent bookstores, but locally owned business in general, to turn this trend around by supporting locally owned business AND NOT purchasing outside the community. In the small store I work I hear so many times a week the choice: “If I can’t get it now I’ll get it online-or the big stores”. Support is necessary within the capabilities of the businesses we have at our local level-not within the structure of the box store or online store model. Rethinking our immediacy of needs and HOW MUCH we will structure them to support local business is the only way to truly support local business. Independents cannot function within the models of the these giant entities. But we can offer very valuable non-homogenized goods not available within the giant entities, as well as the personal service. We must support local businesses or our only choices will be the homogenized, mass produced goods these entities offer and which very rarely contribute to or support our local community.
    I do have to agree that I have, every time I entered SD felt unwelcome-that is different, I assure you, than feeling not welcomed. No greeting, a sigh or huff that indicated my asking questions was an interruption, or complete lack of eye contact. This was when businesses in the community were thriving and I felt this in many stores-my paltry dollar was not going to affect overall thriving income. But, I still shopped there and understood that behavior to be outside the construct of good business sense.

  71. By Vivienne Armentrout
    March 13, 2009 at 2:41 pm | permalink

    I’m not sure if this was in response to my previous comment but I will say that I was very impressed that SD’s stock met my immediacy of need, and that they had a number of other books on the same subject (environment/sustainability) that I had heard of as well. I don’t think businesses will do very well if they only function on the guilt system. They will do best if they actually stock what people want to buy. And I certainly felt welcome.