Keeping alumni and friends connected to U-M

Shop around the corner

By Nicholas Delbanco
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The word

Shaman Drum

The Shaman Drum Bookshop served Ann Arbor for 29 years. (Image: Yelp.com.)

For a bookish person, there are certain sacred spaces — a private library, a public library, a reading room. By “sacred” I mean central, crucial, special,and the religious overtone is intentional; there are those of us for whom the word is both a beginning and end.

“In the beginning was the word,” as the “Good Book” announces, and “In my end is my beginning,” as T.S. Eliot asserts, in his Four Quartets. Between those two polarities a lifetime of reading extends . . .

One more such space goes by the name of “bookstore,” and its incarnations are various. A mile from where I write this (in the small Cape Cod village of Wellfleet), there’s a hole-in-the-wall that calls itself, literally, “The Bookstore.” It sits 200 yards from a salt-water bay, and wind and weather pummel it. Inside the shingled structure, tall jumbled stacks of paperbacks and hard-cover editions are salt-thumbed and wetly self-adhesive. You turn a page at risk. Most books cost a dollar, but there are hidden treasures: from behind a pile of comic books peeps a presentation copy of Henry Beston’s The Outermost Houseor a 1910 handwritten compilation of Wildflowers of the Cape.

Borders, Ann Arbor

Borders opened its doors in Ann Arbor in 1971. This flagship store closed in 2011. (Image: annarbor.com.)

Filling the niche

Elsewhere, and in shopping malls across the nation, more modern establishments sell coffee, trinkets, and greeting cards, with piped-in-air and no used books on shelves. Ann Arbor once was home both to a splendid independent bookstore, Shaman Drum, that closed its doors in 2009, and the flagship of a fleet that enlarged into the chain of Borders Books. Founded in 1971, that company went bankrupt in 2011, so all this is yesteryear’s news, but those of us who walk down State Street or Liberty still mourn their present absence.

In the way of such things, however, new shops spring up phoenix-like and are from the ashes reborn. In Ann Arbor, Nicola’s Books and Literati fill the independent “niche,” and Barnes & Noble serves the mass-market purchaser. Second-hand bookstores continue to sell used and rare editions, and mail-order companies thrive. So though we writers and teachers may bewail the loss of literacy, it’s the larger truth that bookstores have not vanished from the marketplace, and those who take pleasure in staring at shelves — trying to decide which title to pick from the legion of covers so alluringly arrayed and clamoring silently for our attention — still have a world of choice.

A real page-turner

When I think about bookstores, I think (as do most of us) about a specific not general place: the vast Strand Bookstore in New York City, the enormous Powell’s in Portland, and smaller examples from coast to coast. This particular one comes from decades past — the Owl Pen, in Greenwich, NY. Greenwich is a farming town in Washington County, and for years I lived there while teaching at Bennington College in the southwest corner of Vermont. “Remote” is not the word for it; the nearest creatures were chickens and cows, and I could tell there were houses nearby only from their chimney smoke. Men on tractors passed our door more frequently than men in cars, and it was a 10-mile excursion for a quart of milk.

Owl Pen Books

One of the author’s favorite shops in Greenwich, NY. (Image poststar.com)

It was, therefore, an astonishment to discover — one bright autumn afternoon when my wife and I went walking down a dirt track labeled “Riddle Road” — that there was a flourishing bookstore not a mile from our own home. It was housed in a series of barns. Their website now claims 100,000 volumes are available for purchase, but when we frequented the Owl Pen in the early 1970s there were no websites and far fewer books. The place still reeked of its previous use. A large hay-barn contained the bulk of the merchandise, where hay-motes danced in wan afternoon light; from the milk-barn there arose a damp residue of manure and milking smells. Even the three-hole outhouse had been refurbished with shelves. “Collector’s Editions” stayed warm and dry in the house. Two retired librarians owned the place, and its outer walls had hay-bales lining the foundation to keep back wind in winter. The owners of the Owl Pen would hunt down volumes long before the Internet made the task a simple one, and if you asked for X or Y it lay often as not in the back room, or beside a lawnmower in the third shed by the stream . . .

I was a grazer, not a focused-feeder, and would buy books on impulse: a 30-volume set of writings by William Makepeace Thackeray because I liked the binding, a five-volume history of the Dutch Republic because I liked the detailing on the inside page, a book by a poet I’d not yet read in the hope I might someday get around to her work, a tract on “The Forgotten Art of Stone Wall Building” because our own stone walls needed rebuilding and lay in disarray.

Book marked

Literati

Literati, on Washington in Ann Arbor, opened in 2013.(Image: T.Q.)

All these decades later, I still can smell the dust in the air, feel the wind through wide red planking, taste the lukewarm coffee from the rusting metal urn. I see the long tables with high heaps of books and hear the low mutter of other customers browsing an aisle or two distant. I remember the elation with which — hey, presto! — I discovered a novel that someone at last Thursday’s dinner had praised, and how for five dollars it soon would be mine. The Owl Pen stayed a well-kept secret, and the road it fronted was barely wide enough for a single car. Two would make a traffic jam. Often enough, when walking there, we found white-haired elders backed into a drainage ditch while a departing customer inched precariously past.

In my mind’s eye, I stand there still, holding a bag with my just-purchased texts: a novel, a book about trees. There’s the promise delivered of language at hand, the knowledge that — next afternoon or evening or year — I would have a chance to read what the bookstore had stored. And to be grateful for it in time and times to come.

Nicholas Delbanco

Nicholas Delbanco

NICHOLAS DELBANCOis the Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of English. The author of 30 books of fiction and non-fiction, he recently published a new collection of essays, Curiouser and Curiouser, which is available now.

COMMENTS

  • DJ Krause - '62 BS, '86 PhD

    Nicely written: brings back soulful memories of my own long-gone AA library, on the wall of which I had stenciled “The Soul of the Home is the Library.” But Shaman Drum was on State St, not South University.

    Reply

    • Deborah Holdship

      You are correct. Thanks for catching. Fixed.

      Reply

  • Elizabeth Margosches - MPH'75, PhD'80

    I didn’t know the Shaman Drum, but the photo is the location of the Borders Books that I knew in the 1970s.
    And I volunteer now at The Lantern: A Bryn Mawr Bookshop in Washington, DC, where one may purchase books that have been read before.

    Reply

    • Deborah Holdship

      Yes — Shaman Drum lived in the space once occupied by the nascent Borders. Good eye. It’s now a little restaurant called Piada, serving Italian “street food.”

      Reply

  • Lynn Swanson - 1976

    I was an undergrad on campus through the early 1970s, graduated in December of 1976, and stayed living there through 1978. The original Borders, as I remember it, was a red brick building next to the movie theatre facing Liberty Street. It then moved into the building that had been occupied by Jacobson’s. David’s Books was in that vicinity, too, on Liberty.

    Reply

  • Richard Lees - 1970

    And don’t forget Centicore. It was on South U between University Towers and an ice cream shop, and was the focus of readers and writers during the 60′s. I worked the 4-to-midnight shift there for two years after I graduated so I could spend my mornings writing, and often thought of it from New Haven and even Manhattan after leaving Ann Arbor.

    I still have two small leather covered books bought in person from the Borders brothers in their original tiny shop above Good Earth which sold only rare books next to a store that sold jeans and work shirts.

    Alas, I read on a Kindle sometimes these days, too, but I usually do it sitting near my bookshelves which are still filled with books that have been moved coast to coast in this life, some of which reach all the way back the town where I was born — Ann Arbor.

    Reply

  • Tom Kress - 1961

    The Book Store I remember so well was Slater’s on State St. I used to work there between semesters when everyone was buying new text books.

    Reply

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