Meeting Notes for September 18, 2019: Rotary Engagement and the New World of Books

President Rosemarie rang the Rotary bell following a particularly beautiful prelude by Joan Knoertzer. Then Ed Hoffman stepped to the mic to deliver the Inspiration. In his usual effusively mawkish way, he put forth his case for books — even compared them to the old 50s bracelet charm with folded dollar inside as “that safety-in-a-box for self-improvement or redoubt from tyranny.” Then he capped it all with a banner ending: “Books is good!” But give him credit. Ed’s good intentions do try for headway against the fact that the boy just didn’t attend Michigan.

Next, Dave Keosaian and Joanie led us in song. First choice was the classic that made Edith Piaf an international star, “La Vie en rose.” The assembly performed splendidly, infusing the song with real emotion; the second, “Ramblin’ Rose,” which Dave noted was “our song,” referring to the early days of his courtship of JoAnn.

After Rosemarie’s warm welcomes to visiting Rotarians and guests, and thanks to the meeting volunteers, Peg Talburtt came up to give a Community Allocations announcement. She described several CAC grants that are assisting community non-profits: Sweet DreamZZZ, PEACE Neighborhood Center, Children’s Literacy Network, and Family Learning Institute. A representative from each organization described the work being done with the funding. Nancy Matthews painted a mental picture of children preparing for a good night’s sleep with one of Sweet DreamZZZ’s ‘sleep kits’, complete with a comfortable shirt and bedtime book. “This helps train child and parents to help the kids have a good sleep so they’re ready to learn at school,” Nancy explained.

Cindy Safer, of Children’s Literacy Network, remarked on how her organization is using the funding: “We’re designing and implementing a way to develop in children a love for books…We have a new, interactive website; students can set their own reading goals and write reviews. They have spent 160,000 minutes online. We’re proud of the students, and thanks to Rotary!”

Kevin Lill spoke about PEACE Neighborhood Center’s “wrap-around family services offering tutoring and leadership development camps.” This year they hosted 152 children for the six-week course. “There are pockets of poverty in Ann Arbor,” he asserted. “We’re trying to break those cycles of poverty. Rotary’s grant helped with this.” He also described partnerships with Toyota and Google. “The Google relationship is helping kids to get into IT [Information Technology, that is, not the film].”

“I trust you appreciate what these non-profits do in our community,” Peg added amidst resounding applause. Congratulations, Peg, to you and the Community Allocations Committee!

Rosemarie then returned to the podium. “As for the Golf and Tennis Outing: Thank you to the 30-plus volunteers and, particularly, the team captains!” Past President Ashish Sarkar, who served as this year’s GTO chairman, came up to also thank the volunteers and donors. “We had 27 foursome golf teams this year. And, as usual, diners were mesmerized by John U. Bacon’s speech.” Indeed, mesmerized is an apt term. Information about Jim Harbaugh and Michigan Football flowed from John like a broken sluice gate. Normally undemonstrative, your dedicated reporter found himself next day rifling The M Den for a sweatshirt with the biggest MICHIGAN letters he could find.

Ashish concluded by describing the visit last week of a delegation of Armenian journalists. “Thank you, Steve Schram, and everyone at Michigan Radio, for hosting the tour and luncheon. The delegates also went to CTN to learn about community television programming. And thanks to the Rotary volunteers, who received a free lunch. Also, thank-you to Marcia Lane for the One Rotary Summit!”

Rosemarie then welcomed “two wonderful Rotaractors” — Zoe Anderson, this year’s Rotaract vice-president, and Christie Carson. “We have a pretty strong club so far this year,” Zoe declared. “Thank you for making this possible!”

Speaker: Dennis Powers gave a warm introduced our speaker, Literati Bookstore owner, Michael Gustafson. “Let me give you a brief overview,” Michael began. “Borders had just closed…and my wife and I had decided to open a bookstore in Ann Arbor! Great timing. But we’d done a lot of research. Did you know, Ann Arbor used to have the most bookstores per capita of any town in the U.S.? They were successful because of the community.

“One thing I learned from all our research was that you have to have faith in the BOOK. I believe in the book, and that it will exist 100 years from now.” Michael described how his wife, Hillary, as a Simon and Shuster rep, “used to travel around the country and visit independent booksellers to [sell] the Simon and Shuster authors. She saw what they did right, and what didn’t work so well.” Here he showed a slide of a ‘typical’ independent bookstore — cashier chatting at length with a customer; people hanging out drinking coffee in the background. Nothing’s getting sold. Michael and Hillary realized that that a new kind of store, and a new kind of bookstore business model, would have to be developed. This they did.

Not that they didn’t hear their fair share of warnings: “If Borders couldn’t make it, neither can you!” or “You’re doomed!”

“You’re always going to have naysayers,” he declared. The first thing was to identify the problem: “Waiting for people to show up, like the people in the picture, that’s a bad model. You have to be more than a bookstore; like a corner store…but not a discount house.” Let me repeat the main point: “You have to be more than a bookstore.” This they did by grounding Literati into the community. Creating a space where people want to be. “Now, there was the chance we’d lose all our money — but you have to go all-in!”

As important as the store’s location (124 E. Washington Street) and upscale decor were the whimsical amenities Michael and Hillary put inside. Like decorating the children’s area with colorful hanging lights, and installing an old fashioned typewriter. “We had a typewriter on our logo, but thought to put one on a table in the store.” Installing that single typewriter was an act of genius, for it engaged people young and old to create and record thoughts, thus enhancing the environment. “Well, I started saving the scraps of typed paper….” And the messages were thoughtful, emotional, and often profound. So much so that they were gathered into what became a bestselling book, Notes From a Public Typewriter. “People flock to the typewriter,” Michael exclaims with pride. “People are having these interactions, rather than just walking around the house” — or sitting around not buying books. “I said to my wife, ‘Let’s embrace words for the community.'” Which is what they did. Clips from the typed messages were painted on the outside brick wall.

Literati has succeeded in becoming a sculpture of ideas — within the pages of its books; in the coffee shop upstairs (“voted the best bookstore coffee in the country”); on the keys of its well-pounded typewriter; even on its very walls. It is a place to buy and share insight. Literati is community.

Rosemarie thanked Michael warmly, and handed him the famous Rotary bag of goodies. Your reporter remembers when speakers would be tossed a cobblestone-shaped chocolate wrapped in Maize and Blue. We’ve gotten a bit fancier since: now there’s even spirally ribbon tied to the bag handles! Methinks the old Rotary Club of Ann Arbor’s ready for that gussied-up Michigan Union.