Imagine walking into a corner shop in a busy and quirky city center. You’re greeted with a rainbow array of book covers laid out on tables, displayed on the walls, and nestled on shelves. Small, handwritten notecards peek from beneath books, commanding your attention; they convince you to spend more money than you planned, but you tell yourself it’s okay because books are important. With your stack of shiny new finds, you head upstairs and order a handcrafted latte and homemade macaron. Fortified, you settle in and start reading.
This place isn’t a fantasy. Independent bookstores are thriving, and Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI is a perfect example of a great success. This small, welcoming shop opened its doors in 2013; with a prime location in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor and a unique green exterior plastered with quotes left on the store typewriter, it’s a hard place to miss, much less resist. Dzanc interns Carrie Dudewicz and Joseph McClure, two longtime fans of Literati, chose to interview the owners of the beloved store as part of their internship duties. On August 7, 2017, they met Mike and Hilary Gustafson in the bustling upstairs coffee shop.
The Gustafsons told us about their inspirations for starting Literati. After Borders closed its doors in Ann Arbor, the couple, then living in Brooklyn, decided to move back to Michigan and open their own independent bookstore. They had assistance from their favorite shop in Brooklyn, Greenlight Bookstore, and were able to open Literati in March of 2013. Their goal: to be a community-oriented bookstore that hosts many events throughout the year; to stock a heavily curated selection of books; and to champion indie presses and literary fiction.
Mike and Hilary are keenly aware of what distinguishes their store in the age of Amazon’s monopoly over the publishing industry—a monopoly they believe is unsustainable. Literati—nimble, responsive, and firmly embedded within the local community—offers a categorically different experience from Amazon’s top-down, big-data approach.
Dzanc: I wanted to focus in on the curating aspect of what you do, given that you obviously have space limitations and other accessibility considerations.
Hilary: I think our foremost responsibility is to the community and what they want to read and what they want to see. And then it’s also to the writers. Being a writer these days is really hard, and being able to support them, getting their books into the hands of readers, is really important. And that’s kind of our role as an independent bookstore. We’re not given money to promote books like a lot of chains or online stores. A lot of online retailers ask for payment to be able to showcase a book. We don’t do that. We just showcase things that we really believe in and that we love. We make an effort to dig deep into the lists of different publishers and small publishers and make sure to review many of those titles—university presses when we can—to make sure we have a broad array of voices and ideas.
I think that serves the community too. There may be an author or a publisher that we’ve overlooked, and our customers are always providing feedback on books they think we should have. That’s a fun process to engage with along with our staff, who play an integral part in what we carry in the store. Everybody has their own preference. You can’t read everything, so it’s nice to have a broad array of interests and people reading deeply into different sections. Carla downstairs loves food writing and gardening, that’s her specialty, and I love literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, memoir-y, essay, nebulous kinds of things. John helps with our poetry and our philosophy section. Everybody’s got their own expertise.
Mike: Other bookstores with numerous locations often have a centralized buying system with one buyer buying for a multitude of stores. In contrast, we can specify and curate exactly to not just what Ann Arbor wants and reads, but what downtown Ann Arbor wants and reads. We’re more responsive than larger bookstores and chain bookstores. It’s a bottom-up approach. We talk with our customers and talk with our staff and allow a certain amount of empowerment when it comes to curation, obviously with some checks and balances. And because of our limited size, we actually have to be much more aggressive in our curation systems.
H: We’re sort of aggressive about turning over our inventory pretty frequently—pulling the things that aren’t working and getting in new voices and books.
M: We don’t have the luxury of letting books sit on the shelves for a long time. We try to strike that balance between what sells and what piques customers’ interests and curating a selection that wouldn’t be seen in a lot of other places.
H: We’ve taken a lot of chances with inventory and small presses. Our customers have been really responsive to that, and we like that and trust their guidance. You’ll see All the Light You Cannot See next to a Dzanc title, or Counterpoint Press, or other indie presses and know that even though they’ve never heard of this press or this author that it’s going to be something that’s worth reading.
D: How long did it take for your sense of that responsiveness and feedback to evolve, or was that something you knew you were going to have to focus on as soon as you opened?
H: I think we knew that. We took a guess on what we thought it would be, and it changed dramatically in the first year. We continually do tweaks, but there are a lot of unexpected things that people are looking for in the community. Science fiction was something that we had a section for, but it just keeps expanding over time, and the depth that people are looking for in science fiction writing has really expanded. Same goes for poetry. That’s been huge to expand, and that’s our second-best selling section, which is really wonderful. I’m not sure any other bookstore can say that. It’s a difficult thing to sell for most bookstores, but I think having the MFA program in poetry here really helps. There’s a really strong poetry community that’s existed long before we were here, so that’s aided in the strength of that section.
M: I don’t want to talk out of turn, but I think the first year was easier because we were in inventory growth mode. We opened with 9,000 or so titles and now we’ve got about 24,000 to 25,000. So we’ve more than doubled our inventory since we’ve opened, but now we’re at max capacity, so we’re making these decisions of, “Do we keep certain books around because we love them, or do we send them back?” Those are always tough decisions. They’ll begin to get tougher with each year that great new books keep coming out.
D: Do historically considered classic books play a major role in your inventory considerations?
H: I wouldn’t say a major role. They’re important, and they frequently sell. I mean, I always get really upset with Dickens because his books are so big and it’s so frustrating because they take up so much shelf space, but I have to have them, and they sell.
M: We’re constantly analyzing both by category and by section and by geographic space in the store, and by floor, to the point where we’re analyzing sales in turn by shelf versus by bookcase.
D: I know you spoke a little about it, but we wanted to hear more about the responsibilities of the staff, because I know when I shop here, I end up buying every book with a staff pick card by Claire. When you hire someone, how important is their knowledge and experience, and what are you looking for?
M: We like to hire people with different reading tastes, because we can’t read every single book we bring into the store. So to spread it out amongst our sixteen, seventeen, eighteen employees is the only way that each category is covered by a different staff member. We don’t want fifteen people who all have Claire’s readings tastes. We don’t want fifteen people all with John’s reading tastes. It’s something we look for when we interview people, but we’re not making spreadsheets of like, “We need a gardening expert,” or “We need a history expert.” Those sorts of differences just come out naturally between booksellers and backgrounds and ages.
H: When we interview for staff members, we’re always looking to make sure not only that they love books but that they can talk about them in a way that’s eloquent but also relatable. That’s where our shelf-talkers come in. We think they’re really important to the store because they concisely convey the ideas behind a specific book to a broad array of people.
D: How much of your philosophy and your time goes into creating this as an educational space, bringing authors and their readers together—hosting events, readings, and book clubs?
H: The community aspect is a huge part of it. And that always has been our vision, to have a really events-heavy schedule for the store, which has only grown over the years. We started with just the two of us running events, and then we hired an events coordinator, and now we have an events manager and an events coordinator who are both full time and work really hard to bring authors to Ann Arbor.
Our book clubs are really important to the store as well. We have the regular Literati book club, which just reads new fiction and nonfiction. We have the feminist book club, we have the eco book club, and we have the poetry book club. Those help create community and bring in a diverse array of ideas from people in the community. Many people come from Detroit and the surrounding Detroit suburbs to Ann Arbor for those book clubs. We hope to continue to expand our book clubs, too, because that’s really a low-stakes way for people to get involved with reading and sharing ideas, and to have their own voice heard as well.
M: With so many of our experiences transitioning to the digital and online world, from retail purchases to interacting with other people on social media, there are fewer and fewer places to come into contact with other people and other strangers and people with different ideas. Bookstores are carrying the torch with that. We love our book clubs to be very respectful and welcome different opinions. Every time I go to one of our book clubs I’m amazed by the conversations that take place between people that probably wouldn’t have those conversations in a different area of life.
H: Civil discourse in a time of uncivil discourse.
M: Exactly. Any bookstores that are thriving around the country do the same thing and are increasingly becoming pillars of their community, especially now. That was always part of our vision when we started this, and I think it will only continue.
If Hilary and Mike have their way, Literati will be an Ann Arbor fixture for the long haul. “In a really basic manner, we just want to still be here. The way that we do business might be different, but we still want the bookstore to be on this block thirty years in the future,” says Mike, whom Hilary referred to as “Mister Goal-Maker.” “Goal two,” he says, “is livable wages. We want to provide for our employees and create good jobs in town, here, so that people can live in Ann Arbor and sell books for a living.” Hilary emphasizes the importance of “being really agile and being able to respond to what the community needs and what we need.” Both are sensitive to Ann Arbor’s unique culture and are working hard to maintain Literati’s role as an exemplar for thoughtful, engaged businesses. “We’re trying to keep that torch going,” says Mike. The couple’s determination is palpable and inspirational.
At the end of this enlightening interview, we asked Mike and Hilary what books they’re looking forward to. Hilary’s excited about Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (a graduate of the University of Michigan MFA program) and The End We Start From by Megan Hunter, which she compared to Emily St. Jean Mandel’s Station Eleven. Mike said he is loving Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard, a blend of memoir and naturalistic observation similar to Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac.
Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI is a one-of-a-kind, beautiful, comfortable, and welcoming bookstore. With owners who care so deeply and passionately about literature, and about bringing literature and readers together, it is a place many people go out of their way to visit and return to.
Next time you’re in town, stop at Literati. Grab a coffee or tea and browse their 24,000+ titles. Chat with a bookseller. And of course, bring your dog.