Arthur Nusbaum raised the curtain on his second act – Third Mind Books – in January. With an inventory of more than 500 items, the online bookstore devoted to the work and legacy of the Beat Generation shares office space with Nusbaum’s once-primary gig: he’s president of Ann Arbor’s Steppingstone Properties Ltd.
A real estate guy with a thing for William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and the rest of that reckless crew? Incongruous, on the face of it. But a closer look reveals a certain ironic harmony.
“I used to be an activist,” says Nusbaum. No surprise there – this is a fellow whose dazzling energy will find an outlet.
Born in Detroit, he grew up in the suburbs, attended the University of Michigan and returned to Ann Arbor for good in the early 1990s as the concept of New Urbanism was gathering steam in Ann Arbor and across the country. Those principles resonated with him, and as he made the connection between his own business and the intensifying local efforts to rein in suburban sprawl, Nusbaum says, “real estate became more meaningful for me. And that’s reflected in buildings like this.”
He’s speaking from his second-floor suite of offices in Ashley Square, at 123 N. Ashley St. The building – Nusbaum believes it was an auto showroom in its original incarnation – was rehabbed in the 1980s and purchased in the late 1990s by Nusbaum, who relocated Steppingstone there in 2000.
“To make a long story short, that’s the direction I took for the last decade and a half in my business,’’ he says.
Nusbaum is 51. His passion for the Beats – and, specifically, Burroughs – dates to his days at UM, where he was an Honors English student in the late 1970s and “awakening to the counterculture. I became aware of the Beats. It snowballed,” he says, “parallel with my regular life.” And for 30 years he has been building a personal collection of Beat literature and artifacts that he believes “is one of the most comprehensive and one-of-a-kind in the world.”
Hung carefully on the walls of the Ashley Square suite are pieces from Nusbaum’s collection of original artwork, posters and prints (Jesse Crumb and his father, Robert, are represented) and a carefully edited sampling of counterculture and avant-garde artifacts that date back decades. (Ever heard of The Residents? Me neither. Nusbaum totally digs them.)
Prominent on a wall in his office (and on the website) is a photo of Nusbaum with Burroughs that marks what he calls “the lifetime peak of my Beat experience – meeting the master.” Nusbaum had made an attempt to get in touch with Burroughs via Allen Ginsberg in 1994, when the poet was in town for a reading and was signing autographs beforehand at Shaman Drum. “I met him there and had him sign something, and then I wanted to give him an envelope for Burroughs.” When Ginsberg gently waved him off, Nusbaum didn’t press it.
“I just up and went, and knocked on his door” in February 1995 – Burroughs was living in Lawrence, Kansas – “and the rest is history.”
His account of the day can be found among Nusbaum’s writings on ThirdMindBooks.com, along with an obituary he wrote for “Dharma Beat” about the man he calls the “Big Bang; Ground Zero” – the mentor of the Beat Generation.
“Today it means nothing, but to be an iconoclast during the age of extreme conformity, of the ‘gray flannel suit’ and the Red Scare” – Burroughs was beyond the edge, Nusbaum says. “And he was a junkie, he was gay at a time when that was really shocking. And yet,” he says, “here was this reserved, three-piece-suit-wearing guy.”
Nusbaum says “a really thorough and deep biography has yet to be written” of Burroughs – and he might get to it “if I live to be 500.” For now, though, Nusbaum is “whittling” down his real estate interests to downtown Ann Arbor and some other properties and focusing his energies on Third Mind Books. The store’s logo honors the master.
“My first idea was a brick-and-mortar store on Huron Street,” Nusbaum says. He envisioned a shop “like Shaman Drum that specialized in the Beats and also had consigned art and a (performance) venue .… I had all these ideas.
“But you know Ann Arbor, of course. They always find a reason why you need to spend an extra quarter-million or so converting the zoning to this and that and what have you, and then I thought, ‘this is not the time and place to do a brick and mortar.’”
He credits his staff and their technological savvy for getting ThirdMindBooks.com up and running, and applauds them for their willingness to go along for the ride: “They made the transition from real estate to surrealism very well.”
To stock his store, Nusbaum turned to the connections he has made over the years as a collector (his private collection, very emphatically, is not for sale). And on the Web, he tracked down “all of the Beat-related sites – some of which are very active and up to the minute and really of high quality.” Links to and Nusbaum’s comments on some of those sites have led to some sales, he says.
“I’m hoping that somewhere in this world of 6.5 billion people there are maybe 50 to 100 like me who could carry a business like this, who are really passionate about it,” he says.
“I know it’s going to take a while,” but Nusbaum envisions a broad purpose for ThirdMindBooks.com: “I want to combine sales with scholarship and writings and linkages.” As a longer-term project, Nusbaum says he intends to present “a museum-like tour” of his own collection on the Web site – “not for sale, but as a way of cataloging and showing it.”
“The educated customer is important and I want to educate,” he says, “and connect the dots for the aficionado – and that will make a more passionate customer.”
Nusbaum’s focus and passion is evident in the presentation of his inventory on the website. The Ashley Square suite contains a de facto studio where photos are made of each item in the inventory. That list includes a sharp image of each piece along with descriptive text that details the condition of the item, its history and significance to collectors and, often, its provenance. “We lavish a lot of attention on every single item,” Nusbaum says.
In this new age of virtual browsing, that’s a valuable service for an online bookstore. And the Web is the perfect way to reach Nusbaum’s core market: Beat enthusiasts like himself who know what they’re looking for.
And yet (and here’s an opening to lament the lost Shaman Drums of our culture): Nusbaum made a sale on the day of my visit when a box on his shelves, covered in paper the color of terra cotta, caught my eye. The paper was textured with thin, horizontal folds that undulated like low waves on water; the box was a couple of inches thick and as tall as my hand.
And then I pulled the book itself from its handsome case. “Six-Pack 1-5,” published by Bottle of Smoke Press, gathers in one loosely sewn volume five issues of “Six-Pack,” the publisher’s five collections of a half-dozen very short poems, letterpressed in a range of colorful typefaces onto various shades and textures of cardstock. Each little poem-on-a-card is mounted on its own page with photo corners; almost all the cards bear the signature of the poet. Encountered online, this little jewel wouldn’t have been nearly as captivating, no matter how conscientiously presented.
Luckily for locals, Nusbaum says he’s pleased to open the real-life doors of Third Mind Books to the old-fashioned browser for whom the tactile pleasures are still so bound up in the book-buying experience. Just make an appointment. “I’m not sure,” he jokes, “but this may be the world’s only hybrid real estate office and rare-book store.”
Third Mind Books is gold mine of first editions, photographs and postcards, hand-made books, magazines and literary journals and poetry collections created by the super-celebrated and the sometimes-unjustly obscure. From Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Patti Smith (“She just came to Borders!” Nusbaum crows. “I gave her my card!”) to Irvine Welsh (“Trainspotting”) and, of course, a lavish abundance of one-of-a-kind Burroughs, Nusbaum’s inventory holds hundreds of treasures.
So if you still haven’t tracked down that first-edition complete transcript in comic-book form of Allen Ginsberg’s testimony at the 1969 Chicago Seven trial, look no further. Arthur Nusbaum will be thrilled to help you out.
About the writer: Domenica Trevor is a voracious reader who lives in Ann Arbor and has been known to own a copy of “Howl” and wear a beret, back in the day.