Ann Arbor Booksellers Give Survival Tips to Downtown's Newest Addition

“I think they’re doomed,” says Bill Gilmore, owner of Dawn Treader Book Shop in downtown Ann Arbor.

Gilmore has operated his shop on Liberty Street for the last 35 years, watching businesses come and go. Shaman Drum is a Five Guys Burgers. David’s Books is overflow seating for a Chinese restaurant. Borders is, well, Borders—the windows of the flagship store covered in dusty trash bags and the url redirecting to Barnes & Noble, another retailer soon to be on the endangered species list.

Online retailers like Amazon aren’t only snatching up a larger piece of the traditional book pie, but the market is shifting more towards e-books. In a recent report, Amazon owns 27% of the total market share, while e-books now account for 22% of all books sales. Neither trend offers much hope for brick and mortar independent bookstores, particularly those specializing in new titles.

A number of Ann Arbor bookstores have weathered the storm. Used, new and specialty, shops like Dawn Treader, Nicola’s Books, Aunt Agatha’s, Crazy Wisdom and the West Side Book Shop have hung around for decades. Vault Of Midnight has enjoyed year-over-year success selling graphic novels, comic books and games. But survival is far from guaranteed.

Literati Bookstore doesn’t care. Despite the trends, or maybe because of them, Hilary Lowe and Michael Gustafson plan to step into the fray this spring, setting up shop on East Washington. The website outlines plans for the two-level, 2,600 square foot space, bright, friendly and lined with bookshelves from the shuttered Borders flagship store less than half a mile down the road.

“We’ve reached out to a lot of people so far,” says Lowe. “Nicola’s and Aunt Agatha’s have been very helpful and everyone has been straightforward about the challenges of operating an independent bookstore. With Borders and Shaman Drum gone, we see an opportunity for a bookstore offering new titles in broad categories.”

Are Lowe and Gustafson foolhardy or business savvy? What advice are some of Ann Arbor’s longtime independent bookstore owners offering Ann Arbor’s newest bookseller?

Make buying online books boring

Literati Bookstore isn’t competing against Barnes & Noble and Nicola’s Books - it’s competing against Amazon, iTunes and changing habits.

“A lot of activity around the book community evaporated with Borders and we’re hoping she’ll be able to persuade people that buying online is boring,” says Nicola Rooney, owner of Nicola’s Books in the Westgate Shopping Center on the west side of Ann Arbor. Since 1995, Rooney has operated one of Ann Arbor’s most popular and most successful independent bookstores, evolving out of the Little Professor Book Center franchise to develop a unique and beloved haven for book lovers. Evolving to customer’s needs has been a big factor in Nicola’s staying relevant and profitable.

“When we first started, we offered almost nothing but books,” Rooney says. “There was already a greeting card store in the strip mall so we never sold cards. Then we tried selling them, growing our cards and stationary significantly and they sold. Now one whole section of the shop is sidelines.”

Rooney has already offered advice to Lowe and Literati, discussing everything from operating system and distributors to formulas to help calculate profitability with rent, overhead and people hours. But one thing that Literati will have to learn on its own is how to be an oasis for book lovers and how to foster a spirit of community within its walls.

Nicola’s has has a wide variety of books, with a robust fiction section, a huge children’s selection and the largest selection of magazines in town, but that’s not what keeps it in business. The store has a homey feel, laid out with attractive and informative displays like “Vertically Challenged Stories”, “Chicks You Do Not Want to Mess With”, “Another Time” and “Another Place.” It’s warm and inviting and despite being tucked away in a strip mall, is generally pretty busy.

Places like Nicola’s, Aunt Agatha’s and Crazy Wisdom stay in business because they’ve made a connection with the community through the people who buy their books, the people who come to their space to discuss literature and life, and the authors who visit regularly. 

“Authors will be much more difficult to start with for them,” Rooney continues. “Authors aren’t being sent out as much as in the past. Stores can share authors - we used to with Borders all the time - and there will be plenty of space for both of us, but there are just fewer getting out there.”

If someone knows what book they want to buy, a bookstore isn’t always the first option. But if someone loves reading and loves discovering new titles and new authors, places like Nicola’s are rare jewels in the community. Places to have conversations about books and places to ask questions about what to read next.

From a business standpoint, Literati is starting at a disadvantage.

“The main thing is understanding what stock to carry,” says Rooney. “I took over a bookstore that had sales histories so I had something to start with. They’re starting with a blank sheet of paper. The only way to find out what customers will buy is to put it on the shelves and see if they’ll buy it. Once you have a feel what they’ll buy you can get discriminating about buying frontlist.”

If customers want bongs, offer them bongs

For the last 20 years, Jamie and Robin Agnew have operated Aunt Agatha’s on 4th street, less than a block from Literati. Aunt Agatha’s specializes in new and used mystery, detection and true crime books, offering a cozy space packed with hardcover and paperback titles.

“My biggest piece of advice is to listen to your customers,” says Jamie, who’s already been a valuable resource to the Literati owners. “Listen to what they want and don’t have a fixed idea of what you’ll offer.”

“If people are looking for a certain author or want more paperbacks, give it to them. Lately with Borders being gone, people are buying more hardback bestsellers, which is different from what the hardcore mystery buffs want. But we give it to them.”

Jamie tells the story of a friend who opened a tie-die dress shop. With sales mixed, the proprietor decided to add pipes, which flew off the shelves. So she bought more pipes. Soon, she was the owner of a head shop, not a dress shop.

“If you’re on the street, you need to listen to the street,” Jamie says.

Doom and gloom

Being a used bookstore owner, Bill Gilmore of Dawn Treader admits that no advice he has to offer will be of much relevance to Literati, but he’s been on the street for 35 years and has seen some things.

“I think they’re doomed,” he says. “The only thing they’ve got going for them is the ability to attract writers the way Aunt Agatha’s does. If they can do that and do it frequently like Shaman Drum did, they might make it. Though the only thing that kept Shaman Drum going was its textbooks. When that dried up they went out of business. I don’t see how these guys, even with great skill, will survive. As soon as a new book comes out, a week later it’s available on the internet for a dollar.”

Gilmore talks about bookmen, not businessmen. He praises Nicola for being a bookman and derides the K-Mart/Walden Books executives who ran Borders into the ground as anything but. You need to be a bookman to survive in the game.

“We had a wonderful record shop in town called Schoolkids Records right across the street,” Gilmore continues. “They had people working there who knew everything about music. Then Borders opened across the street and they became Borders Books and Music. People would go to Schoolkids, talk to the staff and find out what was new and cool, then go to Borders and buy it for 50 cents cheaper.”

Schoolkids closed in 1998.

“People won’t pay for service,” says Gilmore. “They prefer it, but they won’t pay for it.”

If the community embraces the bookstore, we’ll succeed,” says Lowe. “We need to be a community space, not just a bookstore. We need to bring people together to share ideas,  have a robust event schedule, book clubs, authors, everything. Bring people together who can talk about ideas. And if we don’t have a book you’re looking for, you can find it across the street. We’re looking to build a sense of all of us working together to make books work in the 21st century.”

Richard Retyi is the social media manager at Ann Arbor digital marketing firm Fluency Media as well as a freelance writer for various publications. He reads as much or more than the next guy. You can follow him on Twitter at @RichRetyi or read his blog at

All photos by Doug Coombe