In the depths, it is tough to have faith that all things must pass.
I have been cobbling together a living since July 2009, when New York-based Advance Publications shut down Ann Arbor’s daily newspaper. It was a trauma, pure and simple, for me and for many of my colleagues. After almost 20 years at The News and 30 years as a newspaperwoman, my “career” was dead and the newspaper industry eventually would be, too – at least as we knew it. Some really bleak months followed for all of us.
One of the ways I pay the mortgage now is with earnings from my freelance editing business. One of my clients was the Michigan Theater, which in 2011 hired me to edit a history of the theater. The manuscript’s author, Henry Aldridge, recently retired from the faculty of Eastern Michigan University; in the 1970s he rallied the community to rescue the Michigan from the wrecking ball and for decades has been one of the theater’s organists.
Over a number of months Henry and I would meet at Biggby Coffee on East Liberty Street and, chapter by chapter, shape his story of how a movie palace built for silent films in the 1920s weathered dramatic shifts in the film industry and the damage done to downtown America by postwar suburban sprawl, to ultimately stand firm as an Ann Arbor cultural landmark. It is an inspiring tale.
After one of our sessions we stood together outside Biggby and glumly beheld the dead sidewalk in front of the newly vacated Borders flagship store – a community institution that the community could not save. The ironies did not escape us.
The loss was especially personal for Henry; the bankruptcy had thrown a young friend of his out of a job she adored. Shannon Alden was a 14-year veteran of Borders with a passion for children’s literature. Henry was prodding her to find another way to use her gifts for connecting with people and sharing her delight in books. He urged me to contact her if only to offer some moral support; both of us had taken a hard blow to our sense of purpose because of a revolution in the economics of reading. Newspapers, bookstores – the Internet was killing them both.
So it is not a little ironic that months of blogging and Facebooking kept us up to date on the city’s much-anticipated new downtown bookstore before Literati officially opened its doors at 124 E. Washington St. on Easter Sunday.
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?
It’s tough for any sports writer to get a book published – but it was a lot easier with a friendly bookstore on your side, from start to finish.
It wasn’t that long ago that if you wanted to buy a book, there was no Kindle or Nook or Amazon.com – or the Internet. There weren’t even big-chain bookstores. You had to go to one of those narrow stores in mini-malls that sold paperback best-sellers and thrillers and romance novels.
But then the Borders brothers changed all that. They decided to go big, opening a two-story shop on State Street in Ann Arbor. They stocked almost everything, they gave customers room to relax and read, and they hired people who weren’t just clerks, but readers.
When I applied for a job there in college, they didn’t just hand me an application, but a test on literature – which I failed.
But if they wouldn’t let me sell books there, they still let me buy them, so perhaps it was just as well. I bought everything from Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad” to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five.” Typically, I’d walk in for one book, and walk out with four – an hour later. I spent over a thousand dollars a year there, then a few hundred more on book shelves.
When Borders became a national chain, we Ann Arborites took an unearned pride in seeing the rest of the country love it as much as we did.