Wednesday, January 29, 2014

I talk to Mike Gustafson and Hilary Lowe, the cool owners of Ann Arbor's coolest new bookstore, Literati

I love many things: bookstores among them, but I also love Ann Arbor, one of the coolest towns on the planet. I read recently about how Mike Gustafson and Hilary Lowe moved back to Ann Arbor to start a bookstore, Literati.
Now, how can you not love a bookstore that says this:  "We believe that, contrary to popular belief, we are not hurdling towards some digital, machine-operated future where an Amazon algorithm can decide your reading list. We believe in the whimsy that an independent bookstore provides. We believe that people still enjoy reading real books where real people work in a real bookstore. 

Almost everything in our store is repurposed or designed locally. Our bookshelves were purchased from the original Borders Store No. 1. Our tables were purchased at local thrift stores and consignment shops. Our bookmarks were designed by SIBLING, a local graphic designer in Ann Arbor. Our logo T-shirts and totes were printed by VGKids, an Ypsi-based printing company, and they were all made in the USA. We are committed to working with and supporting the local community. "

I'm thrilled to be able to talk to both Mike and Hilary about their store and remember--you don't have to live in Ann Arbor to order from them!

I love that you boldly went ahead and opened a bookstore at a time when the economy is not exactly bookstore friendly. How can everyone help support such greatness?

Quitting jobs, moving from Brooklyn back home to Ann Arbor, and opening a bookstore in this wintery bookstore marketplace was, and continues to be, a very, very scary endeavor and yet equally exciting I think there’s an underdog status with indie bookstores that, for those opening up shop these past five years, garners reactions of equal parts excitement, support, and skepticism. Sort of like how you’d look at a kid who tells you he’s going to make the NBA one day. That was kind of the reaction we got when we told people we were opening a bookstore in 2013. And I think we’re still trying to catch up to the ramifications of all those fast-moving pieces in our journey. But finally after a very hectic and crazy year and a half, we’re just now catching our breath. We’ve been open 10 months, and we’re making plans for a one-year anniversary. Some said not to open. Others told the media that we were “doomed.” So we’re thrilled to still be here, selling books, and not just puttering along, but doing quite well, hiring more full-time staff, buying more books and bookshelves, and coming up with a plan for 2014 that doesn’t involve living out in the streets or in our parents’ basements.

Honestly, the community support has been incredible. Ann Arbor is one of those places in Michigan and one of the few places in the entire Midwest where we didn’t have to sell or pitch this idea that when you spend locally, more of your money stays local. Ann Arborites already know that, embrace that, and for the most part, live like that. Though Ann Arbor was hit hard with a number of bookstores closing, we thought the market was under-served after Borders closed. Now two new bookstores have opened, and I believe Ann Arbor has a healthy number of bookstores again. The thing is, even though bookstores sell books, people support indie bookstores because many of us offer much, much more than books – we host events, author readings, children’s story times, open mic nights, book clubs, etc. and the vast majority of these events are free to the public, community-centric, and locally focused. Ann Arbor has been incredibly, incredibly supportive so far. We have a long hill to climb, but the support has been great. We’re so lucky.

Right now we are simply trying to get the word out around Ann Arbor that we are here, we are downtown Ann Arbor, and that we sell new books. As far as support, a very easy way to support us is to support us via social networking. In that regard, we’re trying to have more of an audience online. We’ve been very focused on creating a community in every facet – both in person and online. We’ve noticed that by embracing social media, we’ve kept an online community engaged and invested both with us and with books. We like to have fun, we like to be creative, and we try to show that online as well as in our store. By utilizing social media and not shying away from it, our goal is that, should the day come when rents are too high or the market is even more “not bookstore friendly,” we can change, grow, morph, and move somewhere that will accept us… and hope that our audience will move with us, too. Bookstores 30, 20, and even 10 years ago just didn’t have the plugged-in digital audiences that exist now. We have followers not just from around Ann Arbor and Michigan, but around the country, some of whom buy books through our website, which is just like buying in the store. We can keep them posted what’s going on. We’ve been encouraged by other bookstores’ use of social media, and I think social media has allowed small and niche underdog businesses to keep their fan bases loyal and the support going. Some people have found us online, liked us on Facebook or Twitter, then began to buy books through our website just because they like what we do. It’s amazing, and many indie bookstores do this, too.

Literati has a real community feel, which I love, and which I always felt when I lived in Ann Arbor. I was intrigued that you left Brooklyn to come back to Ann Arbor (something I totally get. I never stopped loving Ann Arbor.) Can you tell us about the hows and whys or how you returned?  And why you decided to open your store in Ann Arbor rather than Brooklyn?

Hilary grew up in Ann Arbor and I have family here. So it was a literal returning home when we moved to Ann Arbor from Brooklyn. But when we were living in Brooklyn, Hilary was working for Simon and Schuster as an independent sales rep, and bookstores were just part of our everyday lifestyle. We’d visit many of them, from McNally Jackson to Word to Community to where Hilary worked for a few months, Greenlight Bookstore. It was never this huge rally war-cry of “WE MUST SUPPORT THE LOCAL BOOKSTORE!” but more just like heading to the bar on a Friday night… it was simply something we did regularly. And when we got engaged and heard Borders was closing nationally, we had this huge hole in our hearts because Ann Arbor didn’t have a bookstore downtown selling new books. There is Nicola’s over in Westgate and now BookBound on the North Side, so between us three covering the geographic regions of Ann Arbor, we feel like with the other used and niche bookstores in town, we have filled the gap that Borders left behind.

Brooklyn is a fantastic place filled with writers and readers, but there are already institutions there and in-place. We were living in Crown Heights, and we toyed with the idea of opening somewhere around there, but we just felt like Ann Arbor was home (because it is). We thought we had a good idea what kind of bookstore would work here, what kind of books we would sell, and what people were interested in. It’s always a guessing game, and we continue to learn what Ann Arborites like to read, but we are Midwesterners through and through, and we wanted to open a bookstore in the Midwest. (Though we still sometimes miss Brooklyn!)

You said in an interview that you had a preconceived idea of whom your customers would be--what was that idea and how were you surprised?  How do you make a bookstore flow and be engaging?  How does it matter where cookbooks verses fiction may be? Did you research stores you loved or work on things you had always wanted to see in a store but were never able to find? 

We had an idea what kind of inventory would work, but we were and are surprised every day. The biggest surprise was how well our poetry section has been received. It’s consistently our 2nd or 3rd best-selling section. That’s more than history, or science, or our children’s section. Many bookstores stuff poetry in a small, cold, dark shelf somewhere unseen behind the best sellers and the thrillers. Our poetry section is right up front near the door, two cases filled. Credit goes to John and Russ, our two poetry MFA graduates on staff, who curated what we feel like is the best poetry section in the state. Also credit goes to the amazingly supportive poetry community in Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor is a town of poets. Poetry is strong here. Much of that is because of the educational systems in place, from the stellar MFA program to the Neutral Zone and the job Jeff Kass does with poetry and youth in Ann Arbor. We’ve been the beneficiaries of what was already a strong poetry community long before we arrived.

Store lay-out was difficult, and continues to be something we monitor. We are a small space, and we have two floors. Having two floors can be good, and it can be bad. For events, it’s great because we can separate the events so as to not disturb the rest of the store. For theft and staffing and lugging books around, it’s not the best layout in the world. So we really, really had to consider layout carefully. The manager of the original Borders store, Joe Gable, helped us with our original layout. But, man oh man, we agonized, debated, and continue to debate. People think that when you open a bookstore, that’s it. The books never move, the shelves stay in place, and you just sit back and watch the customers come in. Not at all true. Every bookstore is an organism of many moving pieces – the books move, the shelves move, and like a river, over time, the geographic layout of the store completely changes.

The best decision we made in the opening process was that we painted our sections with chalkboard paint so we could quickly switch sections. We have changed sections around so many times, we’re running out of chalk. We wanted to get that flow just right so a customer can walk in the doors and circulate throughout the store and the transitions of topics would make sense. As in, we wouldn’t have military history flow directly into humor. Sounds like common sense until you begin to play around with unlimited options… then it gets tricky. And you can drive yourself crazy trying to guess what is the best customer experience for browsing. But for our two floors, we have fiction on the main floor and non-fiction on the lower-level. That way, we can identify ourselves with being a fiction-centric store but also be able to point non-fiction lovers in the right direction. (Plus the lower level is cozier with more seating – perfect for browsing the many non-fiction options be have down there – including history, cooking, nature, decorating, science, philosophy, sports, and much more!)

We did research other bookstores, but it’s one of those things where you can’t do too much research or you’ll drive yourself nuts. Sort of like (what I imagine to be) the difficulties in writing. If you sit down to write, say, a memoir, it might help to read other people’s memoirs to see how they structure it, formulate it, and narrate it… but if you read too many memoirs, you’ll just stare at your own blank computer screen in complete anxiety and terror. We toured a few bookstores and got some ideas, but they were general ideas. We had to cater Literati Bookstore for this specific space and our specific two floors, so many of our pre-conceived notions of what-a-bookstore-should-look-like simply flew out the window. The store would be much different if, say, we had just one level, or if we had a wider layout instead of a long layout. That’s why indie bookstores are all fantastic: Every owner caters his/her store to exactly fit the space. That’s when you can tell when you’ve stumbled upon a great bookstore. When every inch of it has been thought and planned.

I always ask booksellers, do you have a sense of what book a customer might need, as opposed to what he or she says he wants?

A book is like a relationship: While you might want the beautiful vixen and yet need the stable Girl Next Door, in the end, you’re going to choose what you’re going to choose. I can point you to both and say, “Here you go!” but the decision of who you choose is not up to me. Like my mom always says, “You can’t help who you fall in love with.” Bookstores allow people to fall in love… with books, with ideas, (sometimes) with people…. So if a customer comes in and asks for a book recommendation, I’ll give them a list of books based both on what they say they like and what I think they might like based on their previous reading habits. We always ask “What is the last book you read that you loved?” This helps us guide them to what we think they may like.  But ultimately, they’re going to fall in love with a book based on circumstances that we can’t always predict. But that’s the beauty in bookselling. You help guide and you may have a good match, but they may browse your selection and come across something they thought they’d never pick up in a million years and go in a totally different direction. It might be completely outside the realm of explanation. And that’s the point. A grand serendipity of sorts.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Oh so many! I just read The Goldfinch over a month ago now and I still can’t get it out of my head. Hence why we’ve chosen it as our first Literati Bookstore pick and I’m excited to see what others in Ann Arbor think about it. So much of why we love reading is the experience of connecting with people and we’re excited to offer that connection here through the book club. I also just read a great memoir called My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff, which is coming out in June. It is about her experience working for Salinger’s Agent at 23 – her first real job. It’s as you might expect – bizarre and lovely and life-changing. It was so much fun – I read it in one sitting. But the book that keeps on giving for me is the cookbook One Pan Two Plates. Best cookbook for couples without kids. Michael says the jambalaya is the best he’s ever had, anywhere, including in New Orleans. The Hungarian Goulash is also pretty amazing.

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