Picture the perfect bookstore. Are you standing in New York City, facing the miles of shelves that make up the Strand? Are you imagining Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, with the voices of famous expatriate writers echoing off the tattered walls? Or maybe you’re a bit closer to home…
Ann Arbor, Michigan frequently tops lists of cities with the highest number of places to find books per capita. Its population of 120,000 supports a thriving library system and eight independently-owned bookstores. The college town is a welcome, if lonely, Midwestern representative on those lists, which are otherwise dominated by coastal cities. But as much as the number of stores helps Ann Arbor stand out, the identities of the bookstores are what make the book culture extraordinary. The bookstores, each with their own distinct feel, are deeply connected to their community, and the people that run them are intentional about uplifting each other and their city.
One of the oldest still in operation, Dawn Treader Bookshop started out as Bill’s Bindery in 1974. Its founder, Bill Gilmore, bound books in the shop while selling some science fiction on the side. Over the decades, it developed into the bookstore as it’s known today: a beloved labyrinth housing over seventy thousand used and rare books alongside antiquarian maps and prints. Its name references the titular ship in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third book in C.S. Lewis’ high-fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia.
“The appeal of the Dawn Treader is, for one, that so many people have a personal connection or relationship with it,” manager Africa Schaumann said. “My favorite thing to hear is when parents are coming in with their smaller, toddler-size kids, and the parent leans down and is like, ‘This was my favorite bookstore when I was in college.’”
The multi-generational appeal of Dawn Treader is only one part of its magic. When you walk into the shop, a masked cardboard cutout of Gandalf has a sign telling customers, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!!…until you put on a mask.” Around one corner is an elegant, classical statue holding a shark like a torch. Around another, a full-size sarcophagus watches over the fiction shelves.
“People love a treasure hunt,” Schaumann said. “And it’s incredibly easy to get lost, to get turned around and say ‘Wait, which way is the front?’ And I think people like stepping into that…It’s a place that’s outside of everything else.”
Schaumann has a theory for why Ann Arbor has so many bookstores: the people simply demand them.
“There’s just this voracious need to have books available to them, and to have the tactile experience with the books,” she said. “Ann Arbor is a town that loves to learn.”
Ann Arbor has long been home to both book sellers and book lovers. Many of the bookstore owners mention Borders, the now-defunct bookstore chain founded on South State Street in 1971, as a fundamental influence.
“Their footprint is huge,” Curtis Sullivan, co-founder of the comic book shop Vault of Midnight, said. “I know lots and lots of ex-Borders folks are still around town, doing books.”
Sullivan started Vault of Midnight with Steve Fodale in 1996. The pair met in kindergarten and came up with the idea for a shop when they were teenagers, opening it when they were both twenty.
“I was the nerdy comic dude,” Sullivan explained. “He was the business guy. So that was the genesis: ‘We make the perfect team — we should do a comic book store.’”
Located on the prime real estate of Main Street, the store’s bright colors draw readers in to see the new and small press offerings. On the lower level, a few decades’ worth of comic books fill box upon box. Sullivan sees the shop-specific details like these as a crucial part of the city’s bookstores.
“All the bookstores are really bespoke, and each one is this unique little neighborhood fixture in whatever neighborhood that bookstore is in,” he said. “I love Ann Arbor’s [booky] community. You take it for granted when you live in Ann Arbor, and then you leave Ann Arbor, and you can’t wait to get back.”
The Ann Arbor Book Society, founded in 2016 by Rachel Pastiva, aims to highlight the diversity of bookstores available. The organization drives the efforts to make Ann Arbor better known as a “book town.” They provide resources for book lovers, including a map of all the bookstores in Ann Arbor. They’ve already distributed over 16,000 copies.
The Book Society’s maps highlight the sheer number of places to buy books in the city, but there’s little sign of competition between the stores.
“I think what Ann Arbor is lucky for is that because we have so many bookstores, it allows there to be niche bookstores,” Pastiva said. “In a town like Ann Arbor, the bookstore can function differently, because we have the ability to kind of focus on some specialties.”
Even though many of the current bookstores are true institutions in Ann Arbor — Motte & Bailey Booksellers and West Side Book Shop have both been selling rare and used books since 1996 and 1975, respectively — new ones are still creating a space for themselves.
When local couple Truly Render and Shaun Manning heard that their neighborhood shop, Bookbound, was closing, they saw a chance to realize a dream they had been contemplating for nearly fifteen years. They both have previous experience in the book world; Render has a background in arts and culture marketing, and Manning worked in publishing for twenty years. They used those experiences to take over Bookbound and start their own bookstore.
“As I was thinking about ‘Why a bookstore?’ one of the things that really excites me about books is sort of the ability to share the experience, whether you’re reading fiction or nonfiction,” Manning said. “You’re finding something new. You’re finding something that you get excited about. And you just want to share that with other people. And then I also love it when other people share it with me.”
The Manning-Render family opened Booksweet in August of 2021, as a general bookshop serving all ages. The store has dedicated sections for young readers and end-caps that often feature drawings done by their middle-schooler.
“I think that one focus that we’ve been really attentive to is providing safe experiences for families. There are kids that come into our shop that have never been in a world of books before,” Manning said. “Seeing the joy on a kid’s face when they’re just arms wide open, saying, ‘Books! Books!’ — it’s really important.”
Render and Manning want Booksweet to be a welcoming space for their community, as well as a reflection of that community.
“The best shops have perspective. And we try to make ours clear,” Render said. “We’re aware that when you’re buying a book, this is such a deeply personal act and an expression of identity.”
They make a point to represent Ann Arbor in all aspects of the shop, from the mural on their window done by a local artist to the acknowledging that their shop is on the ancestral and contemporary home of Indigenous people.
“We are also situated in a part of Ann Arbor that is historically black, another history of our county and our city that has been whitewashed. As white business owners, it’s really important to us [that] when we say ‘We are your community bookshop,’ we want you to understand your community in the way that it really is,” Render said.
Schaumann at Dawn Treader also sees the reciprocal relationship between bookstore and community.
“The phrase I use for it is ‘the commerce of community.’ So there is a back and forth, the community influences us, we influence the community, right?” she explained. “And so a bookstore in any given place is very much influenced by the culture of the community.”
Yet Ann Arbor’s branding as a book town is also reliant on the affluence of the community, where the cost of living — and owning a bookshop — is high.
“The ‘shop local’ movement is one that Ann Arborites wear with pride. And they can — it’s an affluent community. So that’s a privilege. And we’re grateful for it, that they spend it so wisely, and spend it locally,” Render said.
Ann Arbor shapes the bookstores, and the bookstores shape the city in return.
“People think of Ann Arbor as a very kind of forward-thinking, kind of progressive, alternative-thinking place,” Pastiva of the Ann Arbor Book Society said. “And I think that having access to so many bookstores probably has something to do with that.”
There’s a sense of camaraderie with the bookstore owners. They know each other, they’re friends and they’re happy to share.
“I think Ann Arbor needs the number of bookstores that it has,” Schaumann said. “And I think it has sustained having a large amount of bookstores at any given time because of that — just because people need it, people want the books — so having one bookstore is not enough.”
Many independent bookstores have seen a decline with the increase in online retailers and the challenges of the pandemic. Bookstores have to figure out how to stay viable in this day and age, regardless of their location. For bookstore owners in Ann Arbor, the common answer seems to be community connection.
“The thing I like best about indie shops is that they’re super attentive to their neighborhood and their people,” Render of Booksweet said. “I have faith and total confidence that whatever [any other booksellers are] doing across the nation — whether they are in the Midwest, whether they are on the coasts, whether they are in the South, wherever they are — they’re attending to their people, they are tending to their neighbors. I know that in that way, we are the same.”
“We try to stay small and stay local and that’s how you keep it personal and, and that’s how you keep it meaningful and you make it personal for the customers,” Schaumann said. “That’s how I would describe Ann Arbor. It’s just a town of bibliophiles. It is a verifiable booktown.”