Interview with a Bookstore: Literati
Books, Espresso, and a Cast of Canine Regulars
Literati Bookstore was opened on March 31, 2013 by Hilary and Mike Gustafson. Hilary grew up in Ann Arbor and later began a career in publishing, working as a sales rep for Simon and Schuster in New York. In 2009, Ann Arbor lost long time favorite independent bookstore Shaman Drum. Two years later, Borders announced their nationwide closing, including the flagship store in downtown Ann Arbor. Hilary and Mike, who also grew up in Michigan, decided to follow their dream of opening an independent bookstore in Ann Arbor—with re-purposed Borders Store No. 1 bookshelves and fixtures—a few blocks from the University of Michigan’s campus in the heart of downtown.
What's your favorite section of the store?
Atticus Solomon (bookseller): Our poetry section is expansive for such a small space. It’s always refreshing to see a large poetry section in any bookstore, even if you don’t enjoy the art form, you know your booksellers value the written word if they know a thing or two about poetry.
Lillian Li (bookseller): Right now, Psychology. The books in that section make a lot of big promises. When I shelve there, I feel like the answers to life are at my fingertips.
Claire Tobin (marketing assistant): Always fiction. Our frontlist book buyer/co-owner/lady boss Hilary has such amazing taste and curates the best titles across the board. We have an incredibly diverse array of books from the big seven to small presses. I’m always learning about new publishers and new names.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
John Ganiard (events coordinator): Zines, a literary journal selection to rival the historic Hopwood Room at the University of Michigan, and, uh, a deli? Books and coffee is already amazing, we’re spoiled! But books and a turkey reuben? Oh, also the deli is a full-service bar.
Sharon Gambin (bookseller): At the top of my wish list would be an inviting multipurpose event/performance space with great acoustics, some natural light and comfortable chairs. When not used for store events it could be used for book, discussion groups, poetry slams, etc. Then I would create an expanded art section with great display areas, a university press section and a dedicated area for interesting greeting cards, pens and journals.
Claire: Storage space. All the storage space. And a wine bar.
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Jeanne Joesten (inventory manager): I don’t like to use superlatives, but we do a number of things well—like social media, and we have staff members who write thoughtful, pithy book blurbs, that customers seem to appreciate . . . I also think that our willingness to special order from publishers, no matter how small or obscure and no matter what the discount, is becoming rare in the book world.
Claire: I’ve found that customers have really come to appreciate the recommendations we give them. We write some pretty top-notch shelf-talkers and every day I get someone asking me what John or Mairead or Jeanne or Mike (etc.) is reading right now. We have the best staff picks in the game.
I’m also constantly impressed with our signed first editions club, Literati Cultura. Hilary chooses each book with purpose, passion, and pride. We started it less than a year ago, and three of Hilary’s picks just made the National Book Award longlist.
Who's your favorite regular?
John: I’m going to go with some great canine regulars: Finn, Dot, Barry Sanders, and Winston to name just a few. Claire and I met a miniature Australian Shepherd at the Kerrytown Book Festival recently (I want to say his name was Pixel? He had heterochromia), and I think it’s safe to say we called way too much attention to ourselves fawning over him. But, come on, a miniature Australian Shepherd? They exist?
Ok, also poet Ray McDaniel.
Claire: We have an amazing array of puppy regulars who know exactly where our treats are and walk immediately to the front counter where I get to snuggle them and (shh!) accidentally forget about human customers. Among my many favorites are Leto the Husky who likes to jump up and put his front paws on the counter; Finn the very chill Bernese Mountain Dog; Barry Sanders the handsome French Bulldog (and his new little brother Indiana Jones); and Otis the easily excitable black lab. They light up my life. They’ve never bought a book, but their sweet owners do every time they come in.
As far as human favorites, I agree with John about Ray McDaniel. He brings a smile to every bookseller’s face and has incredible taste in books. Also—if you’re here frequently enough, you may find yourself in the presence of Anne Carson, who always seems to make every bookseller stand up a bit straighter.
Jeanne: I wasn’t going to single out anyone because there are many, many regular customers who always brighten my day when they pop in to browse. I learn as much about books from them as I do from my fellow booksellers and from reading reviews. But then I thought of two people who were working at the first Borders store in Ann Arbor back in 1986 when I was hired. I love it when Joe Gable, the legendary manager of Borders Store #1 for many, many years, saunters in with his dog, Toby. I’m in the book business because of a profile of Joe that was published in the Ann Arbor Observer when I first moved to town. l knew I wanted to work for this man at this store. I’ve learned so much from him, and every time he comes in, my reading list grows as he points out books he loves (also, he points out books that are mis-shelved or out of alphabetical order). Keith Taylor was a bookseller at Borders when I was hired, and I was and still am intimidated by his book knowledge, which means every time I see him, I learn something from him. He is a talented writer, to be sure, but more importantly, one of the kindest, gentlest, most knowledgeable people I know and he always makes me smile and just feel as though, “hey, Keith is in the store, and everything is right with the world.”
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Shannon Alden (bookseller): Once, a customer came into the store streaked from their hair down in red paint and paid for their over $100 total entirely in rolls of one-dollar coins.
Claire: Every Halloween, the same guy dresses to the nines in zombie garb and comes into the store. I just happened to have worked the past three Halloweens and let me tell you, it is the most stressful shift of my life wondering when the zombie will walk in.
Jeanne: I don’t know if this qualifies as “crazy,” but I do encounter some odd situations when I have to special order books from rather obscure, often mom-and-pop publishers. I suspect I’ve reached someone just sitting in their living room reading, when they answer the phone, “hello” and seem surprised when I ask if I’ve reached so-and-so publishing company. Several months ago, this happened, and when I gave him the title of the book I was looking for, he said, well, it’s not really an active title, but I might have a copy here someplace. I held whilst he shuffled through stacks of papers and books. When he located a copy, he insisted on just sending it to us free of charge (including not charging us for postage) because no one was really ordering the book anymore. I tried to convince him that we were actually ordering the book and would love to pay for it. And yet, he sent it free of charge, as promised.
More recently I had reason to order a Luc Sante book for a customer that seemed to be available only from Yeti Publishing. When I went to their website, there was a most marvelous graphic and a message that they were moving and were en route via truck from Portland, OR to Detroit, MI, and “Normal service will be resumed as soon as we’ve unpacked . . . ” There was no way to contact them and this message was not dated. When I provided the ordering customer with this information, he indicated that he had never received such an email from Amazon, and was now our customer for life. He is willing to wait for Yeti Publishing to unpack, no matter how long it takes. And I will check the site for him no matter how long it takes and when the day comes that I go on the website and find it actively taking orders, there will be joy in the basement of Literati in Ann Arbor for sure.
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
John: I grew up partially in Ann Arbor. Back when Nicola’s was called Little Professor’s, my mom would always take me there after grocery shopping, or on weekends before getting bagels and muffins next door at Barry’s. I can’t smell our bookstore (people always ask us “don’t you love that smell” and I’m always like “what smell?”), but every time I stop in Nicola’s I smell that book glue, and then a little bit of the bagels being made next door—there’s nothing like it! It was, still is, and always will be, an incredibly calming sensation.
If you weren’t running or working at a bookstore, what would you be doing?
John: Good question.
Jeanne: If I had it to do all over again, I would be either a therapist or a physical therapist, as these are the two professions that have had the most positive impact on my life, besides that of writers who I love. But soon, I look forward to retirement, during which I hope to travel and read all of the books I’ve accumulated in nearly 30 years of working in the book business.
Shannon: If I weren’t working a bookstore, I would travel the world while visiting every bookshop, whiskey library, knitting store, and bakery along the way.
SLIDESHOW: Literati Staff Recommendations