How to Make a Life, Maybe Even a Living

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

It all turned out to be, of course, a simple mistake. The credit card company discovered that Literati had failed to complete the protocol necessary to send the transactions in for processing at the end of each night. “The directions were at the bottom of an ALL-CAPS e-mail that had no punctuation, something you could totally miss,” Gustafson explains. And the instructions had come in an account-set-up 
e-mail they’d received from the company nearly two months before they’d even opened.

But despite the ease with which the problem was solved, it was nearly an irrevocable loss. The credit card processing company explained that any transactions not submitted within ten days are void. They were on Day Nine.

“If you don’t batch out within ten days…” Gustafson begins.

“You lose everything,” Lowe finishes.

There are other missteps and disappointments throughout the summer—the books that don’t arrive for an author event, forcing Gustafson to drive to Barnes & Noble to pick up copies; the occasional angry customer who writes on Literati’s Facebook page that the store is “snooty”; the unexpected bust of football Saturdays—yet when we sit down in mid-October for our final talk, just after the six-month anniversary of the store’s opening, things are going pretty well. Although Lowe admits to being conservative with the business plan, sales have exceeded expectations. Both are realistic in acknowledging that some of this might have to do with the novelty of the store, that the goodwill from the community might not last. But already they have a solid community of regulars whose tastes in reading and whose personalities they’ve begun to get to know. And publishers are starting to reach out to them about events with notable authors.

They’re also aware that this is a particular cultural moment they’ve found themselves in. The independent bookstore dovetails nicely with the craft movement currently afoot in cities like Ann Arbor. It’s not simply because books are crafted, physical objects, but because in addition to a hand-selected inventory, quite literally everything in Literati has been touched by human hands. The hand-lettered window signs were drawn by a local artist, the chalkboard’s painted section headings were done by Gustafson’s mother, the shopping bags bearing the Literati logo were hand-stamped by employees, and the secondhand tables were picked up at thrift stores by the staff.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies this cultural moment more than the manual typewriter in the sitting area in the basement. Each morning Gustafson adds paper to it, and throughout the day people come down to type. Some come to the store to type. They leave love notes, dirty jokes, and the occasional anonymous plea for help. They leave poems and to-do lists and affirmations. One woman even proposed to her partner using it. Here, again, it’s about something tangible—something we can feel with our hands. And though the notes are seemingly ephemera, Gustafson reads them all and saves many, posting them on their basement wall—a record of the store’s days.

So the practice of curation at Literati is about more than just picking books. It’s about handcrafting an experience, from selecting the people who work for you and who bring their personalities and tastes to the store to the look and feel of the place. When I speak with Lori Tucker-Sullivan, the executive director of the Independent Booksellers Consortium, about why Literati is succeeding, she points to two factors: “First, they came into the market not only willing to work in the midst of other booksellers in town, but also actually reaching out to them and structuring their business in light of what those already established bookstores do well. Second, Hilary and Mike have a remarkable understanding of the Ann Arbor market, and it is well reflected in their inventory and events, which are a near-perfect mix of literary, scholarly, and popular titles. When bookstore owners are that smart it shows, and they tend to be successful. They also have a very good understanding of what they can be—and online cannot—in terms of the shopping experience, and they’ve done a wonderful job of developing that sense of discovery and adventure in a small space.”

In a sense, Literati is the opposite of Amazon: Lowe and Gustafson don’t carry everything, intentionally; their selectivity is a service. By carefully curating their selection, they save their customers the toil of having to wade upstream through an endless torrent of book marketing and hyperbole. After all, can every novel really be a tour de force? The recommendations here are genuine as well; there’s no algorithm that can determine what book you might like. Instead, each book appears on the shelf because someone believes it’s worth reading.

When I ask Lowe and Gustafson what additional advice they have for someone thinking about opening a bookstore, their suggestions range from the practical (make sure you have enough money; the cheapest option is not always the best; be tough on lease negotiations) to the more esoteric (maximize the talent of your employees; invest in what will pay off for the life of your business; trust your gut).

“Anybody who tries to open a business is going to be called a fool,” Lowe says, “no matter the endeavor. Yeah, a bookstore is risky. But if you’ve done your homework, you should feel comfortable with what you’re doing.”

Gustafson elaborates on Lowe’s extensive research into the bookselling market, the months she volunteered at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, New York, in exchange for shadowing the owners, her extensive business plan, and her unwavering vision for the store. There’s pride in his voice, and I watch her watching him as he tries to convey the scope of this to me. They’ve been married three months. The two days they took for their honeymoon in June were the first consecutive days away from the business since beginning this process a year ago.

Then, after a pause, Gustafson says, “We were talking recently about whether we would do this again, knowing—”

“God, no!” Lowe interrupts. “You couldn’t pay me enough.”

Both of them are roaring with laughter now.

“Neither of us would ever go through this again,” Gustafson says.

“Nope,” Lowe says. “I’d work as a waitress.”

“The nerves, the anxiety…we really did feel like we had one shot. We still do feel like we have just one shot. And we know we’re not out of the woods yet.”

But they both admit they’re happy. “We’re not ever going to have a lot of money,” Lowe says. “But that’s fine. I love our regulars. Just having conversations with them brightens my day. I wouldn’t have had these sorts of interactions with people sitting at my desk at Simon & Schuster.”

On my way out, I linger for a bit, browsing the fiction section. Two employees have finished their shift and are headed out. I watch Lowe come around the side of the cash register to hug each of them, thanking them for their work that day. It seems obvious that the employees are just as thankful to be there, to have found their bookstore.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he is the assistant director of the English Department Writing Program. He is the editor of the online journal Fiction Writers Review as well as a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.


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.