In Ann Arbor, The Independent Bookstore Is Not Dead

By Noelle Sciarini on January 9th, 2014 / Comments

There’s a scene in the classic Nora Ephron movie, You’ve Got Mail, where Meg Ryan’s character speaks of a “book district,” explaining that if “they don’t have it, we do.”

This idea appears to be cropping up in Ann Arbor, where not one but two bookstores have opened in the past year, in addition to a new bookstore in Ypsilanti and a number of already established stores in the area.

Considering that this is also the city that saw the closing of a beloved Borders Books & Music a couple of years ago, this sudden increase in storefronts seems unusual. Mike Gustafson, owner of Literati Bookstore, thinks otherwise.

“Ann Arbor is commonly known as ‘Tree Town,’ but I’d love to brand it as ‘Book Town’ too,” said Mike.

The name is certainly an accurate one. In the past year, Literati opened in March, followed by Bookbound Bookstore in September and finally Black Stone Bookstore and Cultural Center in November. The opening of three independent bookstores in one year in the same city is almost unheard-of in an age when big corporations like Amazon and the uprising of e-books and e-readers threaten the extinction of paperback books.

Megan Blackshear, the owner of Bookbound, has a different theory.

“There is no doubt that the bricks-and-mortar bookstore model has changed a lot over the last couple of decades… but there are still many book-lovers who want to visit a store,” she said. “To see and feel the books, ask questions, and get recommendations from real, human booksellers.”

This personal touch is serving indie bookstores well, so well that a recent article in Fortune suggests a resurgence of indie bookstores:

“To survive in the age of Amazon, many bookstores are emphasizing what e-commerce has a tougher time delivering: community and a personal touch. It’s not exactly a new strategy. But it has gotten far more attention in recent years.”

The key to an indie bookstore’s business strategy is engaging the community. So far, all three of the new Ann Arbor-area stores are doing just that, with author visits, readings of poetry and other forms of writing, and lively commentary through social media channels. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this is that these stores also play off each other and other stores in the area.

“We try to offer things other stores don’t… but we also try not to offer what other stores offer,” Gustafson said. This means, for example, that Literati purposely has less inventory of mystery and spirituality books, instead referring customers to places like Aunt Agatha’s and Crazy Wisdom. Bookbound also does store recommendations, and offers a large selection of marked-down “bargain books” and listens closely to requests and orders from their customers.

“We are basically hand-picking every title we carry. Our customers seem to appreciate the consistency of our presence, and I think our selection of titles reflects our understanding of what people want when they come into Bookbound,” Blackshear said.

Out in Ypsilanti, this give-and-take between bookstores is more limited.

“We don’t have the same clientele as in Ann Arbor,” owner Carlos Franklin said. “Ypsilanti has a long way to go and doesn’t have an identity yet.”

In some ways, this also works to Black Stone’s advantage – no one else in the city offers the same selection of African-American literature and cultural aspects. It has also been a way for Franklin to give back to the city with the addition of another local, independent business.

“Places like Amazon just take your money, they don’t help local economies,” Franklin said.

For now, each store is continuing to find their place within their respective city’s community, and offer a first-hand example of the ways in which the book industry is evolving. But more importantly, it’s allowing three sets of individuals and their families and friends to follow their dreams and take a chance.

Learn more about Literati, Bookbound and Black Stone.


About the Author

Noelle Sciarini

Noelle Sciarini is a recent graduate from Michigan State University. Now an Ann Arbor resident, she fills her spare time with reading, writing, and the occasional road race. Find her on Twitter: @NoelleSci.