It takes a village to raise a child—and to create a successful bookstore, if the experience of booksellers Hilary and Mike Gustafson is any indication. The couple own Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Mich., PW’s 2019 Bookstore of the Year. The accolade is even more impressive because the Gustafsons opened the full-service general bookstore only six years ago. Their sole previous bookselling experience consisted of Hilary moonlighting at Brooklyn’s Greenlight Books while working as an in-house sales rep for Simon & Schuster between 2008 and 2012.
Literati was born because two beloved bookstores died. The Gustafsons, who grew up in Michigan, were living in Brooklyn when Borders closed its last remaining locations in 2011, including the original one in Ann Arbor. The impact upon the couple and so many others was intensified because two years earlier, Shaman Drum, another longtime Ann Arbor literary icon, had gone out of business.
“Ann Arbor was hit so hard: both closings were sad story lines in the bookselling world, especially because Ann Arbor had at one point the greatest number of bookstores per capita in the U.S.,” Mike tells me in Literati’s returns room, the only area of the store quiet enough for us to talk.
“I was really saddened,” Hilary adds. “I grew up in Ann Arbor, and it felt like such a really big loss to me, completely changing the landscape.”
Hilary says that she and Mike (who was, at the time, a freelance writer and video producer) began discussing, in a “semi-serious way,” moving back to Michigan to open a bookstore. After they did demographic research and Hilary was mentored by Rebecca Fitting, Greenlight’s co-owner, who shared her business plan with them, things got real: Hilary quit her job at S&S, and the couple, says Mike, “packed up the U Haul and our cats” and moved to Ann Arbor in August 2012.
“Everyone was saying back then, ‘Bookstores are dead. Books are dying,’ ” Mike recalls. “It was a scary time to say the words out loud, ‘We’re opening a bookstore.’ But a lot of community members told us they wanted a [general] bookstore downtown—they missed having a bookstore.”
Though there were many who questioned the viability of novices opening a bookstore when two venerable stores had so recently failed, a local bank lent the Gustafsons funds to lease and renovate a 115-year-old building at a busy intersection near several popular restaurants. The building originally housed a bakery; its tenants over the years included, in the 1970s, a left-wing bookstore/small press called New Morning, with signage describing it as “more than a bookstore.”
“People were excited to have news of something opening rather than closing,” Mike says. “There was a lot of excitement when we were doing the build out—when we put up in the window a handmade sign for Literati Books that Hilary had made.”
When the store opened on Mar. 31, 2013, the 2,600-sq.-ft. retail space contained 9,000 books displayed on repurposed shelves from Borders Store #1; Literati’s original seven part-time booksellers included two former Borders employees.
More than a Bookstore
Today, Literati contains almost 4,000 sq. ft. of retail space and fills all three levels of the building with its 30,000-book inventory. The main floor features its two bestselling categories, fiction and poetry, while the basement houses nonfiction and cookbooks; the top floor has a nook between Literati Coffee’s counter and its seating area that is filled with children’s board and picture books. The top floor also contains the store’s newest category: bargain books.
Literati sells sidelines as well as books, including store-branded coffee beans, mugs, clothing, journals, fine writing instruments, and other items. Hilary’s homemade store sign has been replaced by huge vintage typewriter keys hung over the store’s front window spelling out Literati. The typewriter motif is repeated throughout the store, from the logo to a small collection of manual typewriters in a glass case beneath the sales counter and a manual typewriter on a table in a corner of the basement. It holds at all times a sheet of paper ready for people to anonymously type their thoughts.
The public typewriter has proved to be a hit with customers, and snippets of paper containing some of the more profound musings are taped to the closet door next to the machine; a few of Mike’s “very favorite ones” are painted on the side of the building’s exterior.
“There were so many good notes,” says Mike, who claims to read them all. “I couldn’t throw them away. We’ve really encouraged, nourished, and supported our customers to be as much of the store as possible. This was a way to literally make [them] part of the store.”
Mike also edited a compilation of musings in Notes from a Public Typewriter, published by Grand Central last year. With more than 1,700 copies sold at Literati, it is the store’s bestselling title. The book has made the store a destination for out-of-towners after features about the public typewriter ran on NBC Nightly News, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and elsewhere. Hilary reports that the store’s strong 2018 revenue performance is partly due to Notes from a Public Typewriter, as well as to the publication by Holt of staffer Lillian Li’s debut novel, Number One Chinese Restaurant, which has sold 500 copies in-store to date.
Engaged Staff Takes Ownership
Literati has always turned a profit, and the opening of the coffee shop in 2016 led to a sales spike that year. There are now 27 employees, a mix of full- and part-time, veteran booksellers and grad students in the University of Michigan’s MFA program. Three full-time staffers are dedicated to organizing and executing 150–200 events each year. Smaller events such as a poetry readings are held in Literati Coffee, and larger events take place off-site, at such venues as the University of Michigan’s 1,040-seat Rackham Auditorium for Margaret Atwood and Roxane Gay and the 1,150-seat Detroit Institute of Arts for Patti Smith, the store’s largest event to date.
The Gustafsons attribute much of the store’s success not to their retail or marketing genius but to the staff, with Hilary noting that they consciously hired “a balance of expertise and new voices, different working styles and perspectives.” Mike oversees marketing and events, and Hilary handles frontlist buying. Several staffers are in charge of replenishing backlist, and all are encouraged to add onto orders books that they feel will enhance the store’s inventory. Staffers also write shelftalkers; there’s a bay filled with staff picks; and employees take turns each month selecting “the green table” book display on the main floor next to the stairs to Literati Coffee.
“We like the staff to be as engaged and take as much ownership over different parts of the store as possible,” Mike explains. “We structured our business around people’s strengths, which is to the benefit of the employee and the store.”
The owners’ receptiveness to advice and suggestions shows in the store’s evolution: due to both customer and staff feedback, Literati’s science fiction section is three times larger than it was when the store opened. An already-large poetry section continues to grow, and where there once was a section labeled social sciences, there now are several subsections, such as gender studies and race studies. The science, math, and technology sections are also growing, as is the selection of books on vegetarianism.
“We’re here to help people find books that will change their lives,” Hilary says, adding, “Every inch of the store has to be profitable for us to be able to pay our staff what we want to pay them.” However, she notes, “it can’t always just be what sells; it also has to be something we’re passionate about and that provides the customer with a unique browsing experience.” After all, Hilary says, she and Mike envision Literati as a downtown anchor for the next 30–40 years, as were Borders and Shaman Drum before it.
“It’s been like capturing lightning in a bottle from day one—beginning with [the bookstore closings] in Ann Arbor, Hilary growing up in Ann Arbor, me having family in Ann Arbor, our connections to the university,” Mike says. “I can’t imagine doing this in the same way anywhere else. It just seems unlikely that it would land in a community in the same way.”