How to Make a Life, Maybe Even a Living

Jeremiah Chamberlin
From the January/February 2014 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

The couple is also aware of the fact that in addition to trying to make a go of it in a town where neither Borders nor Shaman Drum was able to succeed, it’s not as though it’s an open market. Ann Arbor is home to specialty bookshops like Common Language Bookstore, Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Bookshop, Vault of Midnight, Bookbound, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room; used-book stores like Dawn Treader, West Side Book Shop, and Motte & Bailey Booksellers; and even a general indie bookstore, Nicola’s Books, on the west side of town. Plus, there’s a Barnes & Noble. Each of these stores has loyal customers. So despite months of outreach to the local community, there’s no guarantee that, as a general (albeit well-curated) bookshop, their enterprise will see customers materialize when the doors open.

What, then, does Literati hope to be known for? How will it distinguish itself from these other places of business? “The goal is that every book in our store is carefully selected,” Gustafson says. “And that it would be a great book for whatever it is: a great kids’ tale, or a great biography, whatever. I often ask Hilary, ‘Do you want to read this?’ And if she says no, I’ll say, ‘Well, why are we ordering it then?’”

“Of course it’s not just my taste,” Lowe clarifies. “It’s balancing what’s selling and what I think the community would want with what I like. Those are the three things I base my decisions on. I’ve tried to go through every single title that we’re going to have.” When I ask how many titles they’ve ordered so far, Lowe estimates seven or eight thousand. It’s still only February.

Over the next month and a half I visit periodically to chat about progress and to take pictures of some of the milestones: the day the new floors are put in, the day the bookcases arrive upstairs, even the night Lowe and Gustafson paint the black-and-white checkerboard pattern on the floor, the two of them, in stocking feet, stepping carefully between each square they’ve mapped using blue painter’s tape, as they cover the entire grid, foot by square foot. When I drop in I typically find them in the basement: Lowe working on a laptop, placing orders, in what will one day be a sitting area; Gustafson in their small, six-by-eight-foot office in the back corner, working on the website or dealing with other business issues, such as the botched order of fifteen thousand book-marks that need to be returned. Or their proposal for an exterior sign for the storefront that was denied by Ann Arbor’s Historic District Commission, sending them back to the drawing board. But worst of all, they are informed by the city that their entire street will be torn up and closed for sewer and utility repairs during the month of June and part of July.

Despite these setbacks, by mid-March they’re excited about their progress—staffing, in particular. More than one hundred fifty people applied to work at the store, and they’ve brought in a range of talents and experience: several longtime Borders employees, one of whom, Jeanne Joesten, worked for the company for nearly twenty-five years; the former manager of Shaman Drum; two recent grads from the University of Michigan’s MFA program; and the executive director of the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association, who plans to work part-time so as to stay in touch with what’s happening day-to-day in independent stores.

“Every employee is doing something extra,” Lowe says—from finding used furniture at nearby Treasure Mart, to helping write store policies and procedures addressing issues such as shoplifting.

“Apparently you can’t tackle [people] until they get out of the store,” Gustafson says.

“You can’t even accuse them!” Lowe adds. “That was news to us.”

On March 26 Literati passes the city inspection, and a few days later, on March 30, the store debuts with a private party for members of the literary community. Despite the long hours, on this night Gustafson and Lowe both glow. She wears a black-and-white checked sleeveless dress with a black, bolero-style shrug, and her hair up in a bun. He wears a blue oxford. And the two never stop smiling. The store, too, has the soft, yellowed warmth that you imagine a bookstore having. Like burnished oak. Like varnished maple.

The vibe is equally homey. Writers and members of the university community, as well as local business owners and supporters, arrive for their first glimpse of the new bookstore. There is food and wine and good spirits. There are bright books filling the shelves. And for the first time, the community that Gustafson and Lowe have spent so much time talking with me about—a community of book lovers and readers—is no longer an abstract concept. It is here. I’m not sure what might be going through people’s minds, but all I can envision is the fact that a little over two months ago this space was vacant, and in the ensuing weeks it has been utterly transformed.

The following day is Easter, which comes early this year, as does the unexpected spring weather. It was forecast to be cool and rainy, but instead the day dawns feeling more like May. That evening I drop by Literati to check on preparations for next week’s opening, and when I arrive I encounter another surprise: a store full of people. Gustafson and Lowe have decided at the last minute to have a “soft opening” today. I find them in the downstairs office, ordering more books, and they are positively giddy. I ask what prompted this decision. “At noon we opened a bottle of Dom Pérignon that was dropped off last night,” Gustafson tells me, “and we had a toast with the employees who were here. Then we just decided to flip the sign to Open to see what would happen. We figured we could get some practice swiping a credit card or two. But in a minute and a half there were three people in here. In just ninety seconds! It’s been a steady stream of people since.”

“I’m just so happy we’re open and talking to people,” Lowe tells me.

“Today was absolutely incredible,” Gustafson says.

“Making recommendations, talking about books,” Lowe adds. “That’s why I wanted to do this.” I haven’t seen the two so energized since January, when they first showed me around the empty space and were explaining the vision of the store. The last few months have been hard ones for them, filled with endless financial calculations and guesses. They’ve been living on energy bars and take-out, leaving the store most nights after midnight. But here, finally, their business is a reality.

Gustafson says, “My favorite thing that happened today? Two college girls walked in. One of them said, ‘This is the best day.’ She didn’t say ‘of the week,’ or ‘of the year.’ She just said, ‘This is the best day.’ I loved that.”

It didn’t hurt that within the first six hours of being open, without any advertising whatsoever, the store sold more than two hundred books, bringing in over thirty-four hundred dollars in sales. In the middle of it all they ran out of receipt paper and Gustafson had to drive to OfficeMax.

A little more than a week later, however, Literati would come close to nearly losing the entirety of its first week’s sales—more than twenty thousand dollars—an amount far exceeding the figures for a normal week, as it includes the revenue from the grand opening and the store’s inaugural event with poet Keith Taylor, a reading that drew more than a hundred people. Such a loss would have almost certainly forced it to close.

Nine days after opening for business the store’s Internet went down. Thinking the router simply needed to be reset, Gustafson did so. But in the process he knocked out both the cash registers, causing the credit card processing machines to malfunction. Worried they might have lost that morning’s sales in the process, Gustafson called their credit card authorization company to double-check that the previous day’s transactions had cleared and were successfully deposited. What he learned was that there had been no deposits the previous night; in fact, there hadn’t been a single deposit since the store had opened.

“We’re engaged. So this isn’t just the business, it’s our relationship—and Hilary is furious,” Gustafson recalls.

“Meanwhile,” Lowe says, “customers are coming in, and regulars are coming down to chat.” They both laugh about trying to keep up a good front, about Lowe sobbing in the bathroom at one point, about Gustafson envisioning them bankrupt and on the street. It’s clear just how terrifying this moment must have been after nearly a year of solid work, how fragile the entire endeavor must have suddenly felt. 

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Indie bookstore

I loved reading how this young couple did their homework and then tackled the impossible.  It shows how having the right idea and the savvy to do it plus a good dose of optimism and passion can trump the small realities such as credit card batching.  I plan on visiting this store when my son begins studies at the U of M.