Column: Book Fare

Can Ann Arbor sustain a new breed of downtown bookstore?

So after Borders, now what?

What will it take for another bookseller to open shop in the Borders/Shaman Drum neighborhood at State and Liberty, and operate a browseable place with content deep and wide? We’re talking about a books-and-mortar store a stone’s throw from the University of Michigan campus. A spot where you arrange to meet up with your husband after the two of you go your separate ways for an hour. Where you hang out until the movie starts at the Michigan Theater. Where you actually buy a book now and then – sometimes a title other than the one that got you in the real, live door.

The No. 1 Borders bookstore at Liberty & Maynard in Ann Arbor.

The No. 1 Borders bookstore at Liberty & Maynard in Ann Arbor.

Keith Taylor, the poet, UM creative writing teacher and veteran local bookseller, says “it will take idealism, a lot of 80-hour work weeks, a willingness to be constantly present.”

Check, check and check. This is Ann Arbor, after all.

And then there’s Taylor’s fourth condition: “A landlord willing to rent space for less than the going rate.”

“Rents in central Ann Arbor right now will not allow for an independent bookstore, or an independent anything,” he says, “until the business owner owns the building the store is in.”

Karl Pohrt concurs – and the owner of the former Shaman Drum Bookshop, but not the building that housed it, should know: “It’s essential to own the building. If they don’t, they’ll be vulnerable.”

“Rent,” replies Nicola Rooney flatly when the proprietor of Nicola’s Books is asked why she won’t consider a move from Westgate Shopping Center to the State Street area.

We knew that, really. This is downtown Ann Arbor, after all. The market apparently won’t bear an independent bookstore in that neighborhood – Shaman Drum, which was located on South State just around the corner from Borders, closed in 2009 after nearly 30 years in business. Its former storefront is now a burger joint.

So the real question is this: If the market won’t bear a full-blown downtown bookstore, how will the community respond?

The Business of Bookstores: Boulevard of Broken Dreams

Pohrt warns, with a laugh, that opening a bookstore is like setting up shop “on the boulevard of broken dreams.” More seriously, and out of respect for his “brother and sister booksellers,” he says that “people need to know how hard this is and what’s at stake.”

Taylor says Petoskey now easily outclasses Ann Arbor as a book-buyer’s town. He has his doubts about whether even a non-traditional bookstore – a co-op, for example – could work. “I’m not sure that the book culture now is such that can support that.” (As an aside, it’s worth noting that Taylor had his doubts decades ago, too. He was working at the original Borders store when Tom Borders announced his grand expansion plans to staff. Taylor didn’t respond favorably, prompting Borders to say: “Keith! Why so negative?” It took a while, but now it’s pretty clear why.)

Taylor estimates that rent at $10,000 a month would require $2,000 a day in retail sales – “and you have to sell an awful lot of books to get to $2,000.”

Former Shaman Drum storefront

The distinctive storefront of the former Shaman Drum Bookshop at 313 S. State, now a burger joint.

Especially now that Borders et al succeeded so well in institutionalizing the discount. The profit margin for the book business is 40% to 50%, Pohrt says, which to a bookstore means “2% to 3% after rent, utilities and wages.” So even with publishers starting to factor the discount into list prices, who can survive on selling books alone? Not Nicola’s, though the store never confuses the clearly segregated gifts, cards, pens and chocolates with its main event.

Do we really need to ask how many of us buy online just because we can – maybe not all the time, but often enough? Not to mention the lowest of the low: the “browsers.” Pohrt remembers them well – people who’d head out his door with nothing but an ISBN.

“If you have a bricks-and-mortar store, somebody can always undersell you,” he says. “So why should people buy books from you instead of the Internet?”

The Survivors

Our surviving indies in Ann Arbor have done so by finding more affordable space, serving niches and cultivating loyalty: Aunt Agatha’s on Fourth Street for mystery fans, Common Language at Braun Court for the LGBT community. (Owners Keith Orr and Martin Contreras, who own the neighboring \aut\ BAR, held their second annual Last Bookstore Standing fundraiser on Aug. 25.)

The book selection at beautiful Crazy Wisdom on Main Street, while more varied than you’d think, largely reflects the store’s focus on the spiritual experience. Nearby Falling Water (a little fiction, a little poetry, a little wit amid a lot of gentle self-help) is where you can happen on a lovely book for yourself while buying a lovely gift for somebody else.

Dawn Treader is an adventure; Motte & Bailey is a treasure – but used inventory, while invaluable, is another creature entirely.

But whatever their attributes, none of these sellers are – or aspire to be – what Shaman Drum was before the textbook market collapsed, or what Borders managed to remain for at least a little while until Paperchase, chocolate-covered sunflower seeds, and the long limp toward liquidation.

The storefront of Aunt Agatha's Mystery Bookstore on Fourth Avenue.

In Ann Arbor, according to Pohrt, more books were sold per capita in the 1960s than anywhere else in the country. When my husband and I moved here in 1990, it was immediately clear to me that two things mattered most to Ann Arbor: food and books. Ann Arbor is where Borders was born.

Yes, yes – but that was then and this is now. Locally owned Nicola’s Books is left standing; Barnes and Noble, the national chain that’s a relative newcomer to town, is wobbling. Ann Arbor is a plugged-in, uploaded, wired and wifi-ed, downloaded, World Wide Webosphered, test-marketed-for-a-no-newspaper place. We’re victims of our own success, says Taylor, who reminds us that UM faculty sat in front of glowing screens while Shaman Drum was shuttered. Rooney is fully mindful of all those students out there whose podlets are their link to whatever life of the mind they’ve of a mind to search out.

Is this what the community wants – is it enough?

Another Model: The Community-Based Collaborative

As Shaman Drum was reaching its crisis point in 2008-09, Pohrt says, “I woke up one morning and I didn’t know how to fix it.” The nonprofit approach wasn’t tried in time, he says.

But now Pohrt has another idea. “Start with a group of people,” he says. A representative from city government. Someone from the Downtown Development Authority. A person from UM who’s committed to book culture. “A good lawyer, a good real estate person, a good numbers person,” Pohrt says. “And somebody who knows the book business – and there are a number of these in Ann Arbor.”

And a millionaire?

One of those would be useful, too, Pohrt says, “but you also need people to buy into the idea. And this is a test for the community.”

Common Language Bookstore in Braun Court

Common Language Bookstore in Braun Court.

Pohrt envisions a community-level project resembling the Michigan Center for the Book, an initiative of the state’s Library of Michigan that’s based in Lansing but, Pohrt says, “belongs in Ann Arbor.” On the local level, such a project would nourish and promote the myriad aspects of a local book culture: Book arts, like those fostered by Hollander’s, the Kerrytown shop. Youth literacy efforts led by such operations as the nonprofits 826michigan and the Family Book Club (Pohrt’s on the board of the latter). Writing groups and “rent-a-carrel” opportunities for authors looking for both a quiet place to work and a way to support a community that will support writing.

It would also include a bookstore, of course, but one that is part of a community-wide operation that involves and fosters all the booksellers in the community: booksellers that serve markets for literary fiction and graphic novels, for antiquarian volumes and used paperbacks, and yes – for ebooks and audiobooks and all those other technologies for which people are going to spend money.

Pohrt admits that “there are problems with what I’m proposing” – not the least of which is making sure that nobody among those dogged booksellers we already have is left out of a wider effort. “Maybe each of these pieces already here would have a stake in it,” he says.

In a recent piece for The New York Times Sunday Review, fresh-off-a-book-tour author Ann Patchett (“State of Wonder”) gave a shout-out to indie bookstores around the country – including her “most beloved McLean & Eakin in Petoskey” (score one for Taylor’s street cred). She’s “so convinced that the small, locally owned and operated independent bookstore was a solid business model” that she and a partner are opening Parnassus Books next month in Nashville. One assumes that Patchett herself was able to pony up at least part of the cool million such an enterprise might require, and that she can afford to lose some of it, as Pohrt and Taylor say is almost certainly part of the deal. And more power to her.

But is Ann Arbor so different from Nashville, or Iowa City, or Milwaukee, or Oxford, Miss.? We can’t support a State/Liberty shop dedicated to selling books at the “reasonable profit” Rooney says she manages at Westgate? Will it take a community project dedicated to preserving a culture of readers and reading to keep a first-class, non-niche bookstore in the downtown neighborhood?

Pohrt acknowledges that his is a daunting proposal. “Say it’s impossible. OK, let’s go.”

The Presence of the Shopkeeper

Rooney does it, and of course the keystone is the fact that Westgate rents aren’t what @Burger had to pay (until students went home for the summer, and that Liberty Street restaurant closed). She even takes time off to visit her nonagenarian mum in England – though granted, those winter visits are in November and February, bracketing the feverish Christmas retail season – and had an honest-to-god summer vacation this year.

She does it, she reminds us, because she’s cultivated a fine staff and can trust them to hold down the fort – rather, to keep the fort open to all those savage readers out there.

The storefront of Nicola's Books in the Westgate shopping plaza, at Jackson and Stadium.

Rooney says she’s willing to be there for anybody who “wants a hand-hold” while building a State/Liberty business; she knows how it’s done. In fact, she’d consider an arrangement with a bookseller in it for the long haul who, perhaps, could master the art and science of bookselling under her tutelage and “essentially inherit it from me” when that day comes.

Still, as Taylor reminds us, a big reason for Nicola’s success is the physical presence of Nicola Rooney herself. On a recent Friday afternoon I spent the better part of an hour browsing her shelves for my husband’s birthday presents – I came in for Charles C. Mann’s new “1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created” and collected a few discoveries as well.

Thanks to her distinctive British accent – equal parts charm and steel – it was easy to eavesdrop on Rooney’s sales technique. Somebody was looking for a book whose author recently had a reading at the store. “Oh, yes, a lovely man.” Small talk with shoppers about the massive, damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t preparations for Hurricane Irene. “They’re stopping the buses and the subway!” Another wanted the latest mystery in a favorite series. “If you like we can give you a call when it comes in.” Turns out the customer is from Tecumseh and was in town, stopping in the store just in case. “We could send it to you ….

Rooney is, in all the fine senses of the word, a shopkeeper. She knows her wares and she knows her customers. She’s trained her crew to be shopkeepers, too – various customers have their various staff favorites. And they all spend lots of time on the other side of the counter, tracking down that title that should be “in history or in The Times’” but might be “tucked behind another one.” And because of all that – and, of course, a rent the market will bear – Nicola’s Books turns a respectable profit.

Rooney and two of her staffers spent a good 10 minutes – a long time in a small shop – determined to hunt down one of the three copies of “1493″ that were, the computer indicated, in the store. None were to be found. So she took my info and promised to let me know when the next copy came in (it was expected, and indeed arrived, on Monday).

I was so grateful for the attention. Once again, I was so grateful for the place. We talked for a while about books and bookselling in Ann Arbor. Then she rang up a couple of history paperbacks for me, and I handed her my Visa card.

About the writer: Domenica Trevor lives in Ann Arbor – her columns are published periodically in The Ann Arbor Chronicle. The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our columnists and other contributors. If you’re already supporting The Chronicle, please encourage your friends, neighbors and coworkers to do the same. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle.


  1. September 5, 2011 at 10:35 am | permalink

    Thank you for this – reminds me to check Nicola’s website for another book I’ve been thinking of buying (they are usually available within a day or so if listed).

    In the nostalgia for bookstores column, may I just mention Afterwords (remainders mostly but good browsing) and Books in General (on State, was an excellent location for used technical books)?

    Question: how does the Bookfest tie into this local bookstore industry? Isn’t it coming up soon?

  2. By Mary Morgan
    September 5, 2011 at 10:46 am | permalink

    Yes, the Kerrytown Bookfest is next Sunday, Sept. 11 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. Check the website [link] for more details about the authors, book artists – including Alvey Jones, who also does the monthly Bezonki cartoons for The Chronicle – publishers, booksellers and others who’ll participate in the event.

    The fact that this bookfest is in its ninth year at a time when the industry is struggling shows, I think, that there’s still a robust book community in Ann Arbor. It’s just unclear whether a full-service bookstore can survive financially in the downtown area. Perhaps those days are over.

  3. By Jim Carty
    September 5, 2011 at 11:02 am | permalink

    Good job portraying a complex situation, Domenica. Really nice read.

  4. By Mike W.
    September 5, 2011 at 11:40 am | permalink

    Great article – I’ve been waiting for commentary like this on the state of the bookstore in Ann Arbor for a while. I just want to point out, in terms of used books there’s the West Side Book Shop right off main too.

  5. September 5, 2011 at 11:59 am | permalink

    Regarding the Bookfest (thanks for the info), I recall that Karl Pohrt was one of its originators. Another benefit that Shaman Drum brought to the community.

  6. September 5, 2011 at 12:27 pm | permalink

    Are there any landlords out there who are willing to lower rent? I’m sorry to sound naive/idealistic (I’m really not, usually) but come on…how much money do they need? What are property taxes like for the building owners? I understand they need to make a profit but come on now…how much do they need? Do they really NEED to charge $10k per month for rent? (If they do, okay then I don’t know what to say!!) I guess I’m asking if there are any soft hearts out there who are willing to take a hit on their revenue for a venture like the one discussed above.

  7. By Mary Morgan
    September 5, 2011 at 1:25 pm | permalink

    Re. Kerrytown Bookfest: I think Karl Pohrt was one of the founders of the Ann Arbor Book Festival, which was retooled and held in June. Domenica wrote about it in an earlier column: [link]

  8. By jcp2
    September 5, 2011 at 4:55 pm | permalink

    @6: Commercial mortgages are not like residential mortgages. They typically have payment terms the same as a 30 year mortgage, but with a balloon payment at the end of a much shorter term, perhaps 5-10 years. The choice at the end of the term is to refinance again for another 5-10 years, or to sell. As a lot of these properties are highly leveraged, don’t look for a rent reduction, as that would be carried forward on any long term lease. We are not yet five years past the beginning of the recession, so that I surmise that the majority of the commercial property owners have a balloon payment coming up soon. If the economy does not pick up in the next year, look for a growing wave of commercial property foreclosures over the next 4-5 years, and bankruptcies of commercial property owners that have insufficient financial reserves to continue to make payments on underperforming properties.

  9. By Mary Morgan
    September 5, 2011 at 5:47 pm | permalink

    Another factor is whether the landlord is local or not. While it’s not universally true, the absentee owners – whether they be individuals or trusts – look at the building as a revenue-generator, and aren’t inclined to think about how tenants impact the community. Landlords who live and work here tend to be more flexible – though again, that’s not always the case.

  10. September 5, 2011 at 9:16 pm | permalink

    Great article. One of the reasons I look at your web site at least once a week. Where is Tom borders when we need him? But you and Nicola are right on about the rents is the State Liberty corridor. They have gotten so out of hand that the vast majority of local businesses can even dream of being there, especially if you need walk in traffic.

  11. By William Harris
    September 5, 2011 at 10:56 pm | permalink

    One other factor in the equation is the changing nature of university real estate. The stores flourished along State Street because of the general economic implosion from the first malls (Arborland, Westland, Briarwood). It was the vacant storefronts that allowed for growth. The old clothing stores that once made up university retail disappeared and nothing really took hold for a while. (Shaman Drum was originally above Wild’s, and of course Borders moved into the old Jacobson’s space).

    Call it the yuppification or something, but the environment that bookstores created also began to make the near university retail more attractive as well. So now we have the equivalent of an outdoor shopping mall, an entertainment district as much as anything. I would think this is the shift, broader and more national in nature, that finally puts the nail in the near-university retail environment.

  12. By Rod Johnson
    September 6, 2011 at 10:11 am | permalink

    As an alum of Borders (when it was not #1 but #only) and Shaman Drum (when it was still two rooms upstairs), it kills me that we have no good bookstores downtown. But honestly, online is a better experience in many ways. I hate to pull out the old buggy whips analogy, but it may be that bookstores, and increasingly books, are receding into the past. Publishers themselves are on life support (that life support being mega-blockbusters and Oprah-type publicity). I wonder how much of the nostalgia for great bookstores is about books and how much is about the “third place” ambiance?

    It’s certainly partly about books, I used to shop at Centicore and at Shaman Drum’s predecessor Paideia (who remembers Paideia?), and neither of them were paragons of friendliness. But I think about all the book groups and hour-after-hour browsers I see at B&N and wonder if it’s really, at some level, more a cafe with books than it is a bookstore with coffee.

    By the way, one thing that would help bricks and mortar stores is if the online retailers like Amazon actually had to play on a level playing field. They got a pass on sales tax in the early days from a combination of governmental mystification and reluctance to rein in a growing sector of the economy. In a business with 3%-4% margins, that 5% or so that they’re not charging can allow pricing that no ordinary retailer can approach, and the time is long past when they need or deserve that kind of subsidy. Tim O’Reilly currently has a good piece on this on Google+: [link]

  13. September 6, 2011 at 10:53 am | permalink

    I agree, Amazon should be paying sales tax. There is an effort to enforce this in California, and Amazon is playing hardball to prevent it. [link]

  14. By Matt Hampel
    September 6, 2011 at 12:01 pm | permalink

    I think it’s important to note that we would be paying sales tax. Like a brick-and-mortar store, Amazon would pass the cost on to us.

  15. By Rod Johnson
    September 6, 2011 at 12:16 pm | permalink

    Not sure what the distinction is you’re trying to make, Matt. Is that any different than anything else?

  16. Excellent article! On the sales tax issue, you are required by Michigan law to pay tax on online purchases, and to list the purchases on your MI tax forms. The issue is that some online businesses like Amazon don’t collect sales tax on purchases, saying that they don’t have the means to do so. However, since Amazon collects tax on other websites that they run, that seems odd to me. This results in Amazon and others ability to “give” a 6% discount over the price that a bricks and mortar must charge. The Main Street Fairness Act was introduced into both houses of Congress this summer. It would be helpful to Call or write your Senators or Representatives to let them know your feelings about this.

  17. By Mary Morgan
    September 6, 2011 at 1:12 pm | permalink

    Re. “It would be helpful to call or write your Senators or Representatives…”

    U.S. Sen. Carl Levin
    269 Russell Senate Office Building
    Washington DC 20510
    (202) 224-6221
    Web contact form:

    U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow
    133 Hart Senate Office Building
    Washington DC 20510
    (202) 224-4822
    Web contact form:

    U.S. Rep. John Dingell
    2328 Rayburn House Office Building
    Washington, DC 20515
    (202) 225-4071
    Web contact form:

    Dingell also has an office in Ypsilanti:
    301 West Michigan Avenue, Suite 305
    Ypsilanti, MI 48197
    (734) 481-1100

  18. By Ken Josenhans
    September 6, 2011 at 4:28 pm | permalink

    I’m pretty doom-and-gloom on the whole subject of cultural retail in physical stores. I miss it, but…

    What the crash of the fabled campus-area CD stores taught me:
    (1) Online retail such as Amazon grabbed off the “tourist” portion of the customer base, the fans who used to drive dozens of miles to Ann Arbor to buy armloads of The Good Stuff. (Note that Schoolkids crashed in 1998, a year before Napster, and Tower Records closed in 2000 before file-sharing had significantly dented CD sales. Jim Leonard wrote about the end of the tourist trade after his SKR stores closed.)

    (2) Amazon etc. grabbed off “the long tail”, the albums which might sell 3-10 copies in town. (I note that the folk music I used to buy at Schoolkids, I now buy from online dealers, most in the UK.)

    (3) Best Buy and the other Big Box retailers grabbed off the best seller trade by offering deep discounts.

    (4) And then there was file-sharing and iTunes and the move to iPods and files to finish off most of the new-CD retailers left.

    I don’t see how books are going to escape the same dynamic. Since Borders began its death-spiral around 2008 by thinning its stock, I find that it is a lot easier, and more successful, for me to order books online, than to plan TWO difficult trips to Nicola’s or B&N — one to make the special order, one to pick up the book when it comes in.

    I don’t think sales tax has anything to do with it — Amazon is going to thrash local book retail on selection and convenience. And the astonishing rise of e-Readers like the Kindle is going to make physical book stores a lot less necessary: remember the great plan for the Borders Concept Store was that people would bring in their MP3 player and buy music files there.

    (As an aside, my wife mentioned that we stopped going to Nicola’s very often when Nicola’s dropped its late night hours. Getting to a bookstore before 9 pm is usually difficult for us.)

  19. By Rod Johnson
    September 6, 2011 at 4:36 pm | permalink


  20. By Tod Gross
    September 6, 2011 at 5:14 pm | permalink


    Physical bookstores will continue to exist for people who care for more than just what is convenient and less expensive. There are still people who value a local organization that gives back to the local community and who don’t want to support a mega-corporation that only sucks dollars out of the community. Not that many people perhaps, but still enough to support a smaller bookstore in most mid-sized cities.

  21. By Ken Josenhans
    September 6, 2011 at 5:52 pm | permalink

    It may be that Ann Arbor, as a whole, is actually quite delighted with Amazon. Amazon says that the population of Ann Arbor are among its top customers.

    From May: Amazon “tallied all book, magazine and newspaper sales in both print and Kindle format since January 1, 2011, on a per capita basis in cities with more than 100,000 residents.”

    1. Cambridge, Mass.
    2. Alexandria, VA.
    3. Berkeley, Calif.
    4. Ann Arbor
    5. Boulder, Colorado


    (I’m all in favor of a local alternative. But, drifting back to music for a minute: for the folk/world and classical music CDs I want — the stuff the stores at State & Liberty taught me to love — the demise of Borders eliminates the last vestigal chance of buying local.)

  22. September 6, 2011 at 6:26 pm | permalink

    Two points:

    A physical bookstore allows browsing and serendipitous discovery that are lacking for an online experience.

    Also, we are apparently a very bookish community – I gather that our library usage breaks national records also. I’d reserve judgment on whether our Amazon records are because we prefer Amazon, or just because we like books.

    I miss SKR too.

  23. By Rod Johnson
    September 6, 2011 at 7:21 pm | permalink

    Ken, don’t forget Encore, which continues to be amazing. For how long, who knows? And that’s all we have left except big-box stores and online.

    Tod, maybe…but there is a tipping point beyond which having an independent network for the physical distribution of books is going to make sense for practically nobody. I don’t doubt that you’re right in the short term, but some of the trends Ken points out are hard to miss. It’s not just stores–there’s a huge infrastructure of publishers, printers, binders, publicists and distributors that is rapidly being reduced and consolidated, and it’s increasingly there to serve Amazon. No one will be *able* to have a bookstore if there’s no one doing mass printings of lots of titles and moving them from warehouses around the country. A small number of book-lovers isn’t going to be able to support it. The whole industry is contracting.

    The Thor Power Tools decision long ago made it economically infeasible for publishers to have large inventories, which in turn meant a lot of midlist books went out of print. That market segment is now largely represented by smaller publishers who do small print runs. Big publishers are printing more of a smaller list of titles, and they sell largely through specialty stores and online. The long tail of titles that only sell a few copies might be handled by print on demand, or Kindle-style digital delivery. Your future bookstore might look more like Kinko’s–or an ATM-style kiosk–than Borders, for those people who absolutely have to have a printed book

    Of course, there are still lots of books that sell well–but they can sell just as well via Walmart or Amazon. Stores like Barnes and Noble make a lot of their money via high margin items like coffee, calendars, and out-of-copyright books that they can act as their own publishers for. Those, to some degree, subsidize trade books–or, to look at it another way, the prestigious trade books acts as a loss leader for the high-margin items. The smaller the bookstore, the harder it’s going to be to stay a bookstore and not a knick-knacks-for-literate-people store.

    To take yet another industry as an example, the video equivalent of the small local bookstore was Liberty Street Video. Small, local, high-quality, fanatically loyal customer base, comparatively low overhead (for Ann Arbor), and gone. The dynamic whereby online delivery of physical goods replaced bricks and mortar stores, and then digital delivery replaced online delivery has hit the music and video industries hard, and there’s no reason to think books are immune (and games are next!).

    Sorry, that’s a long rant, and no doubt I’m making overly broad generalizations. Nicola’s appears to be thriving, thankfully. But damn, the long-term trends look bad for the publishing industry.

  24. By Rod Johnson
    September 6, 2011 at 7:31 pm | permalink

    “Big publishers are printing more of a smaller list of titles, and they sell largely through specialty stores and online.”

    I edited that into incoherence. I meant to say small publishers sell through specialty stores and online. Big publishers sell through big box stores and online.

  25. September 6, 2011 at 9:19 pm | permalink

    Here’s a coherent description of the Thor Power Tool ruling, and how it affects publishers willingness to keep slow-selling books in their inventory. [link]

  26. By Ruth Kraut
    September 6, 2011 at 9:30 pm | permalink

    I do like the serendipity of walking into a bookstore and finding something that I like that I didn’t know about before.
    Having said that, there are other reasons that I go to Nicola’s (and to a lesser extent, B & N)–when I go to Nicola’s, I can also run into Barry Bagel’s for breakfast bagels, stop at the library to drop off some almost-overdue books or CDs, pick up t-shirts at TJ Maxx, or stop at Staples. Plus the parking is free. If I stop at B&N (much less often), I might also run into Whole Foods…
    I like to stack my errands–and it’s easy to bike to Westgate as well–and there is a new bike path down Washtenaw.
    I think Borders was managed incompetently, but let’s not underestimate the power of the real estate mantra–location, location, location.

  27. By Ken Josenhans
    September 6, 2011 at 11:45 pm | permalink

    To Rod: I love Encore too, but Encore puts little/no money back into the ecosystem for rewarding/paying/developing artists — it’s just a delightful way to recycle already-paid-for discs. (And Encore is not strong in new-release European folk: no one local is, since the demise of Schoolkids.) In our survey of downtown CD shoppes, let’s not overlook Underground Sounds on Liberty, which seems to be thriving by selling music aimed at an audience about 25 years younger than us. (I think Underground Sounds sells lots of used discs along with the new CDs.)

    To Vivienne and Ruth: There is no doubt that the serendipity of cultural shopping is lost. I still haven’t got an adequate replacement for browsing physical discs of classical music — the online browsing experience for classical music is generally regarded as awful. (The best I have is Internet radio and British classical music magazines.) And in books, I have no idea what can replace browsing Borders’ old section of Ancient History. Mostly I now browse at Motte and Bailey, but as they are a used shop, see my comment above about recycling and supporting the ecosystem for new works.

  28. By Susan
    September 7, 2011 at 10:36 am | permalink

    Great article, Mary. Before I came to Ann Arbor, I lived in a town with no bookstores…none, in fact, within reasonable driving distance. On my house hunting trip here I stopped at Borders and midway through my standard $200-worth-of-books buying spree realized I could now buy a book any time I wanted it. Nothing beats the instant gratification of finding (and buying) something you didn’t know you wanted to read about a subject you didn’t know you needed to learn about. Amazon can’t do that.

  29. By Mary Morgan
    September 7, 2011 at 12:56 pm | permalink

    A post on the local blog Mae Travels offers another perspective on this column: [link]

  30. By Steve Thorpe
    September 7, 2011 at 2:59 pm | permalink

    At the end of the day, it’s all about the money, as in revenues. I can play the lab rat role of a typical baby boomer book fiend. Flash back to 1985: I was spending a MINIMUM of $1000 a year on books, much of it at Borders in Ann Arbor. Not unheard of for my wife and I to drop more than $100 in one visit. I eventually amassed a personal library of about 10,000 books. Flash forward to the decade just ended: After moving into smaller quarters, all but 1200 of those books get donated to local libraries and schools. I still read a minimum of three books a week, but the breakdown goes like this: One third hardcovers from the excellent libraries of Huntington Woods and Royal Oak, one third EPUBS downloaded to my e-reader from those libraries and one third rereads from my personal library. Total book PURCHASES for 2011 less than $50. The combination of a crappy economy and my being less self-indulgent (aka “Baby Boomer Disease”) has been bad news for booksellers. At least when it comes to draining my wallet. If it’s any consolation, the music biz is in even worse shape.

  31. By Ken Josenhans
    September 7, 2011 at 5:39 pm | permalink

    William Harris’ comment contributed a piece of the puzzle which I didn’t have: the book and record stores spawned along State Street in the 1970s when rents were low, because the shopping malls at the edge of town had siphoned off the established retailers.

    Perhaps any new bookstore or co-op in the area should be looking at Ypsilanti locations, for lower rents?

  32. September 7, 2011 at 9:22 pm | permalink

    Great article. Just to clarify about BookFests…The Kerrytown BookFest was started by the Kerrytown District Association with a lot of the work by the Hollander’s, and is now operated by a separate non-profit entity. The Ann Arbor BookFest was the one started by Karl. Both are great events, but are not directly about the retail side of bookselling, other than a general promotion of the culture of books.

    If we did not own the building that houses Common Language, it would also have closed. We survive because:

    a. There is a community that wants us to survive.
    b. We have a landlord (ourselves) who does not want to kick us out.
    c. We have started to treat the business somewhat like a non-profit. There is a donation door at the cash register, we hold fundraisers. Our dear friend Susan Horowitz of Between The Lines newspaper explains that there is the for-profit world, the non-profit world, and then there is the unprofitable world. We believe that bookstores (and newspapers) have a reason to survive above and beyond the market forces*…as non-profits do. How we reconcile these in the future will say a lot about how information is disseminated.

    * All of those reasons for bookstore survival are another entry which I have written about extensively elsewhere.

  33. By Barbara Carr
    September 8, 2011 at 11:17 am | permalink

    Thanks for the excellent article AND the thoughtful, interesting comments. This demonstrates why we need and love the Ann Arbor Chronicle.

  34. September 8, 2011 at 11:56 am | permalink

    I think the serendipity of a physical bookstore is overplayed. Amazon can be just as serendipitous, both through searching and when they list other books purchased by customers.

    Having said that, there is a social aspect of buying books at a bookstore that cannot be duplicated online. Perhaps what we need is some kind of club or coffeehouse that encourages people to come and share the books and magazines they’ve been reading and the music that they’ve been listening to.

  35. By Evian Geffen
    September 8, 2011 at 12:59 pm | permalink

    It seems that Corn Dog (the fellow who took over from Wystan Stevens) will be the only bookseller left in the State Street Area. Two card tables on the sidewalk is a business plan that might just outlast Amazon.

  36. September 8, 2011 at 1:55 pm | permalink

    The Mae Travels post was good and thought-provoking but I want to state that I have some book markers she doesn’t. Some are getting tattered because Amazon doesn’t give them away and neither does Nicola’s (in my experience).

  37. By jcp2
    September 9, 2011 at 1:28 pm | permalink

    We use old hotel key cards, old gift cards, show ticket stubs, etc. for our bookmarks. Each one is usually tied to a good memory.

  38. By tom taylor
    September 12, 2011 at 9:57 am | permalink

    could it be that the student curriculum doesn’t foster, in ann arbor and some other places, the kind of literacy good bookstores promote and this despite a self-infatuation that would declare, “Oh, this must not be so!”? in san francisco we lost stacy’s(my wife’s favorite, formerly on market st, but you can’t go into a neighborhood in san francisco without encountering bookstores. the proprietor of bibliomania in downtown oakland says about ann arbor that it’s not much of a book town but he does praise tom nicely of leaves of grass. a lot of cities that the snooty would not visit have great bookstores now. i once drove to cleveland with davied kozubei, the former proprietor and part-owner of ann arbor’s david’s books. he told me that in london, his hometown, the booksellers told him that the largest bookstore in the english speaking world was mrs kay’s in cleveland. i thought he was kidding but when we got there the store was seven storeys!(unfortunately mrs kay died seven years ago and the store closed but their stock was bought by powell’s in portland, another great book town not living on it’s laurels! sncerely, tom taylor.

  39. By Ken Josenhans
    September 23, 2011 at 12:08 pm | permalink

    Late note: East Lansing is also losing its large general bookstore in a former Jacobsen’s building. Barnes & Noble announced it will close its East Lansing location as the lease expires at the end of 2011. This will leave East Lansing with no general bookstore within the city limits and walking distance from campus, though two Shuler Books outlets are not too far by car in mall locations.