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.
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.”
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?”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 Amazon.com 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.