Despite its gritty image as a manufacturing hub populated by blue-collar factory workers, Michigan extends far beyond Detroit, Grand Rapids and Flint: the state is a popular vacation destination as well. Its $13 billion per year tourism industry, concentrated primarily around the picturesque resort towns on Michigan's west coast, extends north, through the rugged wilderness of the sparsely populated Upper Peninsula, known as the U.P.
Geography is destiny in the Wolverine State, even when it comes to bookselling. While most of Michigan's approximately 200 chain and independent bookstores are clustered in its densely populated urban areas, where much of the state's industry is based, this region has been hard-hit in recent years with plant closings and layoffs, not just in the automobile industry, but in spinoff industries and other sectors as well, resulting in the state's current 6.5% unemployment rate (the national unemployment rate is 4.5%) and nearly stagnant 1.8% population growth.
“More often than not, the fortunes of Michigan booksellers go with the ebb and flow of the automobile business,” Midwest commission rep Bill McGarr said.
“A large number of our customers are connected to the auto industry, so there's a chain reaction. Everything is so interconnected here,” said Cary Loren, co-owner of the suburban Detroit Book Beat bookstore. The Oak Park store, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, is the only full-service general independent bookstore left in Greater Detroit, even though half the state's 10 million residents live in America's eighth largest metro area.
“There are good colleges but no jobs. There are huge busloads of people swarming out of here,” Loren said.
Last year, Loren passed up an opportunity to expand Book Beat's 3,500-square-foot space when a space next door became vacant. “Three years ago, five years ago, I would have done it,” he recalled. “But because of the economic situation, we decided to focus on improving our store and its Web site instead.”
Detroit may be the nation's 10th largest city, but bookstores are few and far between in a place that never fully recovered from the devastation of the 1967 race riots and subsequent “white flight” to the suburbs. While there are 13 Borders bookstores in the Detroit metro area, including two stores at Detroit's international airport, there is only one Borders in Motown itself. None of the 10 Detroit-area Barnes & Noble stores are located inside the city limits, but instead are concentrated in its more affluent suburbs—towns like Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills. While there are three CBA bookstores in Detroit proper, all specializing in bibles and religious materials, the only ABA bookstore located inside the city, the Shrine of the Black Madonna, caters to the city's 82% African-American population by specializing in African-American literature.
In sharp contrast to Detroit's lack of bookstores and the preponderance of chain stores in its suburbs, the bookselling scene in nearby Ann Arbor is booming. In fact, according to the University of Michigan, as well as local literati, this bustling college town of 114,000 has more bookstores per capita, selling more books per capita than any other city in the country.
Local independents include Shaman Drum, with an emphasis on scholarly, academic and literary titles; Crazy Wisdom, a New Age bookstore; Aunt Agatha's, a mystery bookstore; and Common Language, a gay/lesbian bookstore. Four stores specialize in selling textbooks to the 40,000 students at the University of Michigan's flagship campus, including Ulrich's, which after 73 years in operation can claim to be the city's oldest bookstore.
“We're nicely sprinkled around town and each of us has our specialty, so none of us independents tread on each other's turf. We're able to work together,” said Nicola Rooney, owner of Nicola's Books, the city's only full-service general independent bookstore.
Besides being the corporate headquarters of the Borders Group, Inc., Ann Arbor is home to three Borders stores, with a fourth scheduled to open in early 2008. Borders, founded in downtown Ann Arbor in 1971 by Tom and Louis Borders, today has 1,200 stores around the world, including 504 Borders superstores in the U.S. and another 70 stores internationally. Of the company's 34,000 employees worldwide, 1,100 work out of the home office on Phoenix Drive.
While, according to local booksellers, business always has flourished in Ann Arbor, the future seems much more uncertain, especially in the wake of Pfizer Inc.'s January announcement of 2,100 layoffs, as the city's largest private employer prepares to pull out of its Ann Arbor location.
“It's always been easy to sell books here,” Shaman Drum owner Karl Pohrt said. “We'll see if this continues.” Pohrt founded Shaman Drum 27 years ago in a tiny, second-floor space downtown, around the corner from the University of Michigan's campus and a block away from the original Borders store. Today, Shaman Drum occupies two adjoining buildings and averages $3 to $4 million gross sales each year, 60% of that in textbooks.
“It's going to get more difficult,” Pohrt predicted, “but we'll try to keep the lights on as long as we can.”
In contrast to the economic challenges confronting southern Michigan booksellers, the small-town bookstores in the northern parts of the state are thriving.
“Our more remote stores are doing terrifically. They're more insulated from the economic situation in the southern parts of the state,” Cathy DeLucia, Borders' Midwest regional director, admitted, referring to the Borders store in Traverse City and a Waldenbooks in Alpena, the chain's northernmost stores. Although there's neither a B&N nor a Borders in the U.P, there are two B. Dalton stores and at least a half-dozen independent bookstores.
“These independents are anchoring downtowns. They're filling a cultural niche,” HarperCollins rep Kate McCune, PW's 2007 Sales Rep of the Year, said, explaining the success of her more far-flung rural accounts. For instance, Petoskey, a resort town with 6,000 year-round residents, swelling to 24,000 in summer, has supported two thriving independent bookstores for years—40-year-old Horizon Books and 15-year-old McLean & Eakin.
“The town just booms in summer,” Susan Capaldi, McLean & Eakin's manager, said, “and people are retiring here more than when I first moved here.”
“Sales are up 32% in the first quarter of this year,” Jill Miner, owner of Saturn Booksellers, a 15-year-old bookstore in Gaylord, 33 miles southeast of Petoskey, recently told PW.
Typically, Gaylord, a town renowned for its two dozen golf courses, posts its strongest sales during the summer months, when the year-round population of 3,200 residents balloons, with an estimated total of 400,000 visitors passing through town.
Back in Ann Arbor, bookseller Rooney sums up the differences between northern and southern Michigan booksellers. “People go up to northern Michigan for rest and relaxation, which means you are also in a reasonably comfortable economic bracket,” she said. Rooney added, “Books will be part of your entertainment. Here, we've got so much more competition in how you're going to spend your money. Books are an indulgence. The kinds of books we sell—none are essential to life.”