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Literati story continues to unfold

Marlene Lacasse/Daily
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By Noah Cohen, Daily Arts Writer
Published September 5, 2013

On the corner of Fourth Street and Washington Avenue, next door to Amadeus and two doors down from Arbor Brewing Company, a new bookstore came to life this past spring. This bookstore, Literati, is my new favorite protagonist in a story that’s been going on in Ann Arbor for a long time. A story that, with a bit of legwork from its readership, won’t be ending any time soon.

The Ann Arbor native always used to meet at Borders, which was our home base. A2 kids were hard-wired to meet up at bookstores. Walking downtown without a destination in mind, you would end up inside one or another. You didn’t have to be a reader-type; book places were community places, and the physical presence of books has always been part and parcel to that sense of community.

Even on dates, since I never had a car, I’d just say, “Meet me in Borders; I’ll be in the young adult section.” That was what downtown meant — Borders, Shaman Drum, Michigan Book & Supply, Dawn Treader, Vault of Midnight, David’s Bookshop and the Ann Arbor Public Library. Not a coffee shop nor a park; not a pub nor an arcade. We had those, but they couldn’t be home base. They didn’t have the magic gravity.

If you’re like me, you’re tired of hearing about eReaders supplanting paperbacks. You walk through the Diag and see kids down on the grass in their hippie-casual, intent on thin digital screens, and it’s jarring. Not in a “get off my lawn, you damn kids” sort of way; it’s just weird to me, and it’s not as warm. Will the new class of literati have piles of books in their room like I did?

Economics is a strong lifestyle bully, but I had always thought of physical book places as especially resilient somehow — forts against harsh realities. Book culture was a way out if you needed a way out and a way in if you needed a way in. But bookstores couldn’t protect themselves the way they protected me. Four of the seven aforementioned stores are now gone.

A passion for books

Against these odds, Hilary and Michael Gustafson made their way into the market. They were engaged in 2011, and that’s when their idea for a bookstore crystallized.

“We just said, ‘we should go for this,’ ” Michael said, grinning.

Michael was a freelance sports writer. Hilary, disillusioned with political consulting, took to publishing in Brooklyn as an independent sales representative at Simon & Schuster.

“She’s always been passionate about books, and I’ve always been passionate about writing,” Michael said. “That’s how we found our commonality: through the love of written words — different aspects of the same entity.”

“That’s how we began our courtship,” Michael said, “sending each other books and letters and journals.”

“At first, we read very different things,” Hilary said, “which was fun in the beginning, because we would trade books. He read tons of Vonnegut ... lots of sports writing. His first recommendation to me was the Harry Potter books, so I read them and loved them. And then I had him read ‘Too Loud a Solitude.’ It’s a Czech book; I studied abroad in Prague, and it’s just really beautiful.”

“Now that we’ve read each other’s favorites, we’re agreeing more about authors,” she said.

But the manner with which she reads continues to boggle Michael’s mind. Hilary joked that she sometimes reads the last page of a book before she gets to the end.

I asked Michael whether he thought it might be better not to have any expectations at all.

“Hilary’s answer might be much different than mine,” he said immediately. But for him, “All their hope, it fires me up. It gets me going.”

He acknowledged differing opinions on the future of the bookstore.