Weekly Meeting - September 18: Bookselling in the Age of Amazon

Speaker: With his wife, Hillary, Michael Gustafson opened Literati Bookstore in March, 2013, two years after Borders filed for bankruptcy. In 2011, when Borders liquidated, they were living in Brooklyn, New York. Hillary was working at the publisher Simon & Schuster as a sales representative for independent bookstores and held a part-time position at Greenlight Bookstore there.  Michael was working as a video artist and freelance writer. They met, bonded, and fell in love over the literary culture that independent bookstores nourish. Both were Michigan natives. They knew first-hand the void left in Ann Arbor when Shman Drum Bookstore had closed in 2009. The demise of Borders offered them a chance to deepen and enhance Ann Arbor’s vibrant downtown culture and arts scene. “As part of our social life in New York, we would go to bookstores,” Hilary recalled in an article published in The Michigan Daily in January, 2016. “[They] just seemed like a good community space … we always talked about what it would be like to own a store ourselves.”

Last year, being interviewed for the on-line forum Read it Forward, Michael recalled that, “when we were writing our business plan back in 2011 and 2012, people thought that physical books were just going to go to the wayside. A lot has been documented about how that’s leveled off. There are some people who prefer eBooks, and some people who prefer physical books, and some people who do both, which is great. But I think there’s a real trend happening, which is a return to analog amongst younger book browsers. … I think … there’s a digital fatigue that is happening. I don’t think we fully understand what that digital fatigue and over-digitalization of our culture is doing to us, but I do see people actively choosing products that people once predicted would just go the way of the Dodo Bird.”

Much has been written about how much Amazon has transformed retailing into a commodity business. An independent bookstore can’t compete with Amazon on price. To succeed, it has to bring a “value-added” intangible to its interface with customers. The Gustafsons were well aware of the challenges ahead. Ann Arbor already had a long-established independent bookstore in Nicola’s Books; Nicola’s has a well-established tie-in with the University of Michigan through its book table in the lobby of the Michigan Theater in connection with the Penny Stamps Lecture Series, the weekly in-term presentation of the School of Art & Design. The Gustafsons knew that they would have to carve out a similar niche. Mentored by the principals of the Greenlight Bookstore where Hillary had worked, they devised a tripartite approach: be a community-oriented book seller that hosted many events throughout the year, stocked a heavily curated selection of books and magazines, and championed indie presses and literary fiction. One key component of this formula is the book clubs that Literati runs. Not only do those help build community. they bring in a diverse array of ideas as new ones are started up. They are a low-stakes way to get people involved with reading. Another component is the events that Literati sponsors. Some of those feature authors on traditional book tours. Others are designed to appeal to a broader audience . Last fall, for instance, Literati partnered with the School of Music Theater & Dance to present Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the 2006 graduates of the School who wrote the music and lyrics for the Tony-award winning musical Dear Even Hansen. Demand for tickets was so great that the venue had to be moved from Stamps Auditorium on North Campus to Rackham Auditorium, where a sold-out house spanning all age groups sat entranced for two hours. Michael will describe Literati’s journey for us in his talk.