Guest Bloggers: Hilary & Mike Gustafson

Hilary and Mike Gustafson opened Literati Bookstore, 124 E. Washington Street, on Easter of 2013. Prior to moving back to her hometown of Ann Arbor, Hilary worked for Simon and Schuster in New York as an independent sales rep, and Mike worked as a freelance writer and video producer. Two months after Literati opened, they got married. They have three cats and live in Ann Arbor.

We Survive Because Downtown Ann Arbor Survives

When we first told friends that we were moving halfway across the country to open a bookstore, there were more stares than smiles. "Aren't bookstores dying?" blank expressions suggested. When we later decided our likely destination was Ann Arbor – a town where Hilary grew up and where I had family – the narrative changed to: "Well if Borders didn't make it, how can you?" Everyone in Ann Arbor knows that Borders started here. And they closed. So how could possibly anyone else succeed? How could we even survive one week? One business owner even proclaimed us "doomed" before we opened our doors.

Three months later, we are still surviving.  One could say we're thriving.

But some interesting things have happened along our short survival journey. One of the strangest has been the largest reason for that survival: Embracing the digital world of social media.

We always thought our largest problem would be getting the word out. When people ask what's been the biggest surprise these past few opening months, for me, it's been how well-received and supported our store is on Facebook, Twitter, and our blog. Though new customers walk in daily, many say to us, "I follow you guys on Facebook!" or "I saw your blog!"  We figured it would take a while to attract customers into the store, let people know our location, our mission statement, our profound love for cats... But two minutes after we flipped our sign from "CLOSED" to "OPEN" we had customers. Two minutes. And it was all because of social media.    

I realize the irony of a non-digital bookstore embracing the digital world of social media. But Hilary and I are just like most people: We have iPhones, iPads, laptops. We are not Luddites trapped in caves shunning all technological advancements. On the flip side, we have also spent great percentages of our lives in bookstores and trapped (happily) within the plots and pages of real books. When people reacted to our bookstore-opening plans as though we'd contracted some disease, we ignored them. Like any risk in life, you just have to trust in yourself and invest in what you enjoy doing. We are 28 and 30 years old, and most of our lives, we've only read real books. We figured that other people, in Ann Arbor and the surrounding areas, were like us.

We were right. Ann Arborites are buying books. Are we millionaires? Nope. Can we survive another three months? Unless fire and brimstone hail from the sky, we'll be here.

I want to share a story that proved to be a vital turning point for us: Two months before we opened, we were invited to participate in a small-business vision enhancement meeting led by Paul Saginaw of Zingerman's. In the meeting we were encouraged, along with other Ann Arbor area small business in attendance, to conjure our dream business scenario in ten years. Not even open, with a hazy image of our store's vision, we stood in front of the group of already successful small businesses of Ann Arbor and told them that we were opening a bookstore. To our surprise and shock, many had already heard of us. All because of digital media.

From that one meeting sprouted future collaborations with quite a few other businesses in the area. Across the table from us that night were people from VGKids, an Ypsi-based printing company. They now print our t-shirts and tote bags. Also at the table was Alisa Bobzien, who later designed our bookmarks. We met many other people that night, wonderful, successful, business-minded Ann Arborites. The genius of that meeting was that we, who had barely any contacts, could meet like-minded people face-to-face and begin future relationships.

The resulting "vision" we conjured for Literati Bookstore was similar to that meeting in many respects: We want to be a place where people gather to discover great books. But, like that meeting, we also just want to be a place where people gather. Because magic happens when people come together. And that magic is lost when a bookstore – like any other locally owned gathering place – closes down. In the three months we've been open, I've already seen some of that magic and vision come to fruition: Couples on first dates buying each other books to get to know the other; fathers and sons sitting at our basement typewriter typing silent notes to each other; book clubs enjoying wine and conversation and laughter; poetry open mic nights where first-time readers share their art; hand-made bookmarks given to strangers off the street; live folk music; dancing (though that's mostly just Hilary and I after-hours).

The irony is: These last three months could have never happened without the aid of the digital world. And I've realized that Literati is becoming a microcosm of Ann Arbor – where old and new converge to create a wholly unique gathering space. While it wasn't entirely what we expected, it makes sense: That's exactly where I feel Ann Arbor is right now. It's a place where new and hip restaurants rub shoulders next to old and comfortable diners, where boutiques mingle with thrift shops, and where tech companies exist alongside independent bookstores.

Last night, I finished re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird. I read it as a kid, but never appreciated it. Then I saw it on our shelves and said, "I should just take a look." I finished it two days later. Stayed up until 4am rooting for Scout and Atticus and Boo. And I can honestly say I would have never picked it up had I been browsing on a website. Now, it is one of my favorite books of all time. (As it should be. If the last time you read it was when you were in school, re-read it again. The words are the same, but it will be even more enjoyable as an adult.)  

Just like that old classic with a newly designed cover that might attract you for some unexplained reason, the bookstore is a place where not only the old and new converge, but connect. Every day, I see this connection not only happening to customers, but to myself. I pick up books that I never would have – philosophy, poetry, history – and I just start reading. And I feel that Ann Arbor, a community that embraces both old and new, real and imagined, creative and scientific, is a place that embraces these types of unexpected connections. It's a place where kids type at a new, mystical thing called a "typewriter" ("Mom, where's the delete key?!") while their parents discover new mystical and literary books like "I Could Pee On This." Or where people see neighbors they hadn't seen in years, hold up a new book and say, "Have you read this?" Or where an 88 year-old World War II veteran can come into our bookstore and talk to a 25 year-old stranger about D-Day for no other reason than to connect.

I see these conversations and interactions happening daily, and each time it does, I am reminded not only of the importance of bookstores, but also the importance of vibrant downtown districts.

The fact is this: We only survive because downtown Ann Arbor survives. We are simply the latest torch-bearer of an old idea -- one that was carried by Borders, one that was carried by Shaman Drum, one that has certainly struggled over the past few years, but will never go away.

Like all old classics, bookstores may get new names, new addresses, or new owners, but so long as people still enjoy discovering new surprises, they will continue to be rediscovered and reincarnated, over and over and over.
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