How independent bookstores and the Michigan Theater kept authors coming to Ann Arbor, post-Borders

Borders Group's 2011 bankruptcy and liquidation had a variety of effects on the bookstore chain's hometown of Ann Arbor, not the least of which was what former Borders employee Drew Waller describes as a sudden "deficit" of major author appearances in town.


Borders' downtown Ann Arbor flagship store, where Waller worked as acting director of national events, was well known for presenting a steady stream of author events (as well as events featuring film and music luminaries). But with the major retailer out of the picture, Ann Arbor started to fade off publishers' radars.


"They would go from Chicago to New York, or Chicago to Toronto," Waller says. "But here it is. This is Detroit. This is a major metro area that people need to acknowledge."


When Waller left Borders in 2009 to become the Michigan Theater's director of sales and marketing, he formed a partnership with Ann Arbor retailer Nicola's Books to begin building a new structure to bring big-name authors to town. Nicola's and the Michigan Theater have partnered on numerous author events since then, hosting major names ranging from Malcolm Gladwell to Patti Smith in the theater. Rather than a venue rental arrangement, the relationship between Nicola's and the theater is a true partnership, with the two organizations splitting costs and planning responsibilities.


Nicola's event manager Lynn Riehl says it took a few years to establish the "marriage" between Nicola's and the theater, and the bookstore still fights perceptions of being in a "flyover zone" today. But she says a sold-out 2013 event with fantasy author Neil Gaiman, cosponsored by Nicola's and the Michigan, was the "tipping point" for keeping Ann Arbor on New York publishers' maps.


"People remember, and they put the two together," Riehl says. "I think at this point New York sees it as a partnership."


Ann Arbor book lovers will note that 2013 marked another major tipping point for the local literary scene, as Literati bookstore opened its doors downtown. The store has brought numerous major author events of its own to town since then, both within the bookstore itself and in rented venues like Rackham and Hill auditoriums.


Literati co-owner Hilary Gustafson says she hasn't noted a direct correlation between the Nicola's-Michigan Theater partnership and her own ability to bring authors to town. But she says Nicola's and Literati contribute to an "ecosystem" of retailers that serves a diverse range of reading interests in town. And that's valuable, because Gustafson says it can still be a battle to convince some publishers that Ann Arbor is a worthy stop for their author tours.


"Many of them already know how great Ann Arbor is, how plugged-in culturally (community members) are, and how excited they are about the literary landscape," Gustafson says. "But other publishers are just learning about Ann Arbor and some of the other towns in the Midwest that do a good job."


Riehl says the arrival of Literati, as well as the regular events put on by other local bookstores like Bookbound and Crazy Wisdom, only further bolster Ann Arbor's literary reputation. When Nicola's is offered an event that isn't a good fit for the store's customer base, Riehl says she happily refers publishers to other local stores with a more appropriate niche.


"I like to say, 'Play well with each others,'" Riehl says. "Everybody's happy in the end. Overall, I think it's all good for Ann Arbor to have all these voices and all these outlets for authors to come to."


This month alone will bring another couple of major literary names to town. Literati will present Jo Nesbø at the Graduate Hotel on May 14, and Nicola's and the Michigan will present Paula Hawkins at Nicola's on May 17. Borders or no Borders, Waller says the Ann Arbor area's "enthusiasm towards knowledge" has remained a constant that demands to be served one way or another.


"There is a reason we continue to do this, because it is appreciated and because it is acknowledged," he says. "I think that is the best thanks that anybody could ever get."


Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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