Blog: Gene Alloway, Robin Agnew, & Bill Castanier





Gene Alloway, a former University of Michigan senior assistant librarian, is the owner of Motte & Bailey Used & Rare Booksellers in Ann Arbor, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

Robin Agnew is co-owner with her husband Jamie of Aunt Agatha's New & Used Mysteries in Ann Arbor, in its 18th year as a mainstay for mystery readers in our area.

Bill Castanier is a literary journalist who writes a weekly literary review for the Lansing City Pulse and co-authors with his son Ben, a litblog on Michigan authors and books.

Photo by Doug Coombe

Photo - L to R Bill Castanier, Robin Agnew and Gene Alloway at the Kerrytown Bookfest.

Gene Alloway, Robin Agnew, & Bill Castanier - Most Recent Posts:

Bill Castanier - Book City, Ann Arbor

I sometimes wonder why Ann Arbor doesn't sink under the sheer weight of the books and unpublished manuscripts that are in city and university libraries and bookstores, let alone private libraries.

Ann Arbor is truly a book community, from the hundreds of authors scrambling to get a book published to acclaimed New York Times Best Selling authors and renowned publishers such as Edwards Printing and Thompson-Shore to small upstarts like Found Magazine and Zingerman's Press and Huron River Press (check out its book on the Del Rio Bar).

This past weekend's Kerrytown BookFest was a great example of this unusual confluence. You couldn't walk two feet without running into an author or someone employed in Ann Arbor's vast book industry. It probably helped that more than 30 authors were on hand for packed events and nearly one-half of them had ties to either Ann Arbor or the University of Michigan. Couple this with the nearly 100 book and art vendors and it was book heaven.

At one point during the BookFest I was walking up toward 4th Avenue in the Farmers' Market and ran into authors Steve Amick and Sharon Pomerantz; next were children's authors Debbie Diesen and Nancy Shaw. Then while chatting with Ken Wachsberger of Azenphony Press (Ken has a history on the underground press coming out in January) I was able to introduce him to author Kristina Riggles and the Detroit Free Press Book Reviewer Chris Walton. And this was happening all day.

On any night in Ann Arbor you're likely to be able to catch a major author reading at a local bookstore (David Baldacci on September 29 at Borders Downtown) or a book club meeting to discuss vintage cooking books. Ann Arbor is also graced with a library system which provides quality programming for the community and venues for young authors. The library is also a major sponsor of a community-wide reading program, "Ann Arbor Ypsilanti Reads".

By any measure, the University of Michigan provides a rich academic medium for authors and researchers.  Laura Kasischke, Sharon Pomerantz, Michael Byers, Peter Ho Davies, Nicholas Delbanco, Eileen Pollack, and Keith Taylor are just a few of the authors who work and write at the "U".

The U's writing programs both at the undergraduate level and graduate level are nationally recognized and are challenging experiences for writers. Just ask Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian.

The annual Hopwood Award for writers at the University of Michigan is recognized as one of the most prestigious university awards across the globe. Mystery writer Steve Hamilton and historical fiction writer Sharon Pomerantz, who were at the Kerrytown BookFest this past weekend, hold Hopwood awards.

As you walk the halls of Angell you can almost feel the presence of poets W. H. Auden, Theodore Roethke, and Robert Frost along with playwright Arthur Miller. Stop into the Ann Arbor District Library downtown and read Frost's letter to a friend about why he left the University of Michigan. Frost was in residence at U-M for several years in the 1920s.

The letter is a photocopy, but the original is in the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library, one of the University's world class libraries. It includes the vast holdings of the Bentley Historical Library and the William C. Clements Library. And did you know that the Labadie Collection  holds the world's premier collections of anarchism and radical writing?

Hundreds of researchers and authors of all stripes visit the libraries each year while researching books and articles. U-M graduate and author Daniel Okrent used the library to research the prohibition era for his book, The Last Call.

Collectors from across Michigan and neighboring states often visit Ann Arbor's numerous used book stores or attend one of the city's legendary used book sales. Thousands of collectors (myself included) and bargain hunters wandered the aisles of the annual Ann Arbor AAUW Book Sale last week. And if there are any doubts about how many visitors the used book market draws, check out the line waiting to get into the Friends of the Ann Arbor Library this Friday evening.

In its third decade is Jay Platt's annual Antiquarian Book Fair at the Michigan Union. Ann Arborites like to think of Hollander's in Kerrytown as a hidden gem, but the store which sells decorative paper and hand book binding supplies also holds scores of workshops on the book arts and book preservation, attracting students and teachers from across the United States.

The University of Michigan Press is considered one of the premier university presses in the country and in addition to publishing scholarly books of national and international importance it mines the local community for book publishing ideas.

Take, for example, the recent publication of the photographic history of the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, Blues in Black and White, with an essay by Michael Erlewine and photos by Stanley Livingston or the reprint of the genre-bending Michigan Murders which has been out of print for decades.

These are just some of the examples of why Ann Arbor deserves the title "Book City". But one of the most telling signs of the importance of books in the Ann Arbor community came in the form of graffiti sprayed on a building wall just off Packard a couple years ago: In pure graffiti style it read: "Read a book".

Robin Agnew - The Bookseller Backbone of Ann Arbor

When we opened 18 years ago, our stock was much smaller, and the book community had a stronger and wider array of used booksellers, though our real competition was Borders.  Through the years Borders' star has waned a bit, but it is still a giant part of the Ann Arbor book community.  Something happening to Borders is almost unthinkable – it was founded here and remains a giant presence downtown.

However, the used book community in town is also a strong and varied one.  The oldest shop, West Side Books, belongs to Jay Platt, who carries a wide variety of used books, mostly hardcover, mostly collectible. There's also Dawn Treader and David's Books, who sell a wide array of general used books.  There's Motte and Bailey Books, which specializes in children's, history, literary, and biographical used books.  There's Kaleidoscope, with an array of books and collectible objects.  And there's our store, Aunt Agatha's, selling new and used mysteries, and focusing on various author events through the year.

There is also a Barnes & Noble presence in town, as well as Nicola's Books, a strong and well-run independent bookstore on the west side of town.  The Kerrytown BookFest draws together many of these booksellers and they do form the backbone of our book community in town.  While Borders didn't have a booth, two of their employees ran our book cover contest this year.  Present on the actual day were Aunt Agatha's, Motte & Bailey, Nicola's, Kaleidoscope, and West Side Books.

We are joined, of course, by booksellers from all over the state. I started the morning walking through the Farmer's Market and found an old friend from the other side of the state selling books – she said she loves the day as she gets to socialize and see old friends.  All day I had conversations about reading and books, about and with writers, and I ended the day discussing Jane Austen with a woman waiting at my table for a book to be signed by an author.

The very tail end of the day, two of our speakers thanked me for including them on the program – they said it made them feel like they were a part of the community.  I love that the Bookfest brings together all the parts of the book – the reader, the bookbinder and printer, the publisher, and the bookseller.  We all need each other to stay vital.

Gene Alloway - Opening Up the Book Festival

This past weekend, the Kerrytown BookFest had its 8th incarnation. Over 30 authors and other presenters attended, along with over 95 vendors and over 3,500 visitors. Like any festival, books were bought, authors and illustrators were asked how they do their magic, children learned new crafts, and friends new and old explored a part of Ann Arbor cu nearly as old as the city itself.

But in those similarities, the Kerrytown Bookfest is different in an important way. We highlight the authors, illustrators, book artists, publishers, printers, and readers in our region of Michigan and Northern Ohio and Indiana. Thanks to the original foresight of Tom and Cindy Hollander and the Kerrytown District, we have been able to tap into the vast creative history and activity of our region for nearly a decade.

As electronic books and readers grab headlines, perhaps some see book festivals as the last honors of a passing era. We don't. We view books and the community that creates, shapes, produces and shares them as one of the most vital in our region. Great authors, great libraries, great publishers, and the quiet, persistent book workers, artists, and printers thrive here, nourished by our ongoing history and community with books. We do honor the printed book, but more importantly, we honor those people and organizations who spent years shaping Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the surrounding area through books. We also share with visitors the efforts, the art and craft, the inspiration, and the sheer determination it takes to keep our book culture vibrant.

That culture is deeper than many think. We have a wealth of award winning authors, poets, playwrights, illustrators, artists, and book workers. We also have publishers who gave voice to banned authors and helped create important works of art and learning. We have bookshops that are respected by international collectors and scholars. We have innovative printers, large and small, who have improved and expanded the art of the printed word. We also have renowned university and public libraries that house treasures unique in the world, and treasures that bring the world, one book at a time, to the young and those hungry for knowledge among us.

And we've had them for over one hundred and fifty years.

So what does the future hold for books and the Kerrytown BookFest? Discovery and community. There remains a great future for the printed and bound book, both as a useful technology and a work of art. We will continue to support efforts toward that end, and to present themes that highlight important and exciting parts of our book arts community. With our sponsors, other organizations, and the many book people in our area we will do our best to create a space where discovery and wonder and learning can occur. We will do all we can to grow that community further into its next century. Most of all, we hope you'll join us.