Interview with a Bookseller: Hilary and Mike Gustafson

The team behind Literati Bookstore talk typewriter marriage proposals, digital fatigue, and exciting debuts.

Literati Bookstore

When Mike and Hilary Gustafson opened Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, they decided to put a typewriter on the ground floor just for fun. They never expected the constant flow of anonymous notes left by community members, ranging from funny to confessional. Now, Mike and Oliver Uberti have compiled a collection of these letters, titled Notes from a Public Typewriter. We spoke with Mike and Hilary about the book, some debut novels they’re excited about this year, and Literati’s typewriter-inspired bookstore marriage proposals.

So, tell us how you ended up moving from Brooklyn to Ann Arbor to open a bookstore.

Hilary Gustafson: I worked for a publisher in New York City, and my last job was as a sales rep for independent bookstores, so I got to know the industry through working with them. Mike and I had spent a lot of our social life in bookstores at book readings, spending date nights after dinner browsing the shelves, and opening our own bookstore was always something we dreamed about doing. When Borders closed nationally, we thought that was a big loss for the bookselling community, especially in Ann Arbor, because Borders started in Ann Arbor, and that’s where I grew up. So we reached out, and we were mentored by Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene. They allowed me to work for free and learn the ropes, and that helped me solidify a plan to open a bookstore. We were encouraged by other people in the industry, and that was really helpful. Literati Bookstore


What’s Literati like?

Mike Gustafson: Literati Bookstore is right in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor. We’re in an old, historic three-story building, and each level has its own character. On the lower level is where our nonfiction is, and you can hear footsteps above you. It’s very cozy, a more secluded spot to take a book and spend some moments with it. On the main floor, it’s a little bit more lively. You’ve got people walking in and out. That’s where our fiction is, and our poetry, and our YA section. The upper level is a coffee shop and kids’ area and event space, so it’s usually crowded, full of people drinking coffee, reading books, and working on their laptops. Then at night, we’ll have readings up there. The store is on the smaller side, but it’s very lively.

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Hilary: We try to be really community-oriented with our events, so it brings people in.

Literati Bookstore

What kinds of events do you do?

Hilary: We do author readings and signings. We host a number of book clubs. We have a regular book club, we have an eco book club, we have a feminist book club, and we have a poetry book club. And we also host educator night and do panel discussions. We have open mic. There are many, many things we do in the store. We also partner with other area businesses to do events offsite, and we do a lot with the University of Michigan.

Literati Bookstore

What’s it like running the business as a married couple?

Mike: It’s wonderful. It’s rewarding. I get to spend my days with the woman I love, and we get to interact on different levels than many or most relationships, which is running the business and growing the business. The first few years were a little tricky. We had to make some rules about separating work and life because when you’re under the same roof with your business co-owner, you talk a lot about the business. And we had to make specific rules. Like when we would walk home the first few years of being open, we would pass a blinking red light, and when we would pass that blinking red light on the route home, that was our signal to stop talking about the bookstore. It sounds really silly, but your entire evening can be encompassed by just talking about work and business, so we really had to make sure there was that balance there. And we’ve kept our responsibilities separate. I do a lot of the marketing and some of the event stuff, and Hilary does the buying and accounting, and basically running the entire business.

Hilary: No! It’s just we make sure that we each have something we have ownership over, and we meet and collaborate on everything. But with Mike having the marketing and me having the buying, it makes it an easy line to cross.

Mike: We are a dual-headed monster.

Literati Bookstore

What do you love about bookselling?

Hilary: The interactions with other readers are my favorite part. Being able to talk about the books I love and share that passion for literature and books, and having those customers come back and really connect with a book is rewarding. And I love running the book club and hearing everyone’s take on the book and different writing styles.

Mike: I kind of felt like the book is a perfect product, right? It doesn’t need electricity, it doesn’t need batteries, and you don’t have to upgrade or sign away your privacy to access it, like you do with a lot of technology devices these days. But it also completely serves its purpose. It’s perfect in its own form; it’s durable and long-lasting. So when we opened our bookstore, I knew that people would be excited about just browsing shelves and browsing books. What I didn’t expect was the amount of dialogue and conversation that would happen. I just didn’t anticipate the amount of enthusiasm among our customers for books that were coming out, or their expertise. They were making recommendations to us and starting that natural, organic dialogue that happens in any brick-and-mortar situation, but especially in a bookstore, when you begin to talk about deeper-level conceptual ideas, new worlds, and authors. The dialogue of books has been a wonderful surprise.

Why did you initially put the typewriter on the first floor, and what did you think would happen with it?

Literati Bookstore

Mike: Well, we based our logo on my grandfather’s typewriter, which I inherited several years before we opened. We thought that was a good logo choice because when you type on a typewriter, you have to self-edit, you have to curate your own thoughts, so to speak, and when you type something on a piece of paper, those words become permanent in the world. We wanted to be a bookstore that would support that kind of thoughtful, impactful writing. And then we thought, well, if our logo is a typewriter, we should display typewriters. So on our lower level, we put out one of the typewriters with just a blank piece of paper.

Our original idea was it would be neat if we had an ongoing story that customers could pick up where the last customer left off, and throughout the life of our bookstore, we would have a 10,000-page random, ongoing narrative story. But when we opened, our lives were so crazy, and we were just running around trying to keep register tape in the registers, so we just left the typewriter out with a piece of paper. And what ended up happening was that customers began just leaving notes. They didn’t need any prompt, they didn’t need any direction—they just started typing things.

I think one of the first notes that was left said, “Thank you for being here.” There were a lot of notes about bookstores and bookselling and books, but over time, as we began to share some of these favorite notes on our social media pages, the notes turned more personal, more introspective. People began to really open up, using the typewriter as a venting vehicle, leaving notes about sobriety, about loneliness, about love. People have proposed via the typewriter. A lot of these amazing things have happened just through the typewriter on our lower level, and it’s been this wonderful community experiment.

Were you there for that proposal? How does that work?

Mike: How does that work? That’s a good question; I’ve wondered that, too. So one customer came in and typed out his proposal on the typewriter, and then took that piece of paper and hid it in a menu at the restaurant where they were eating dinner. We’ve had people type out “Will you marry me?” and then propose that way. Once, somebody ran in and he was frantic. He said, “There’s no paper in the typewriter!” and we’re like, “Well, okay, we’ll get some.” And he’s like “I’ve got to write a proposal out to my girlfriend, and I need some paper!” I wondered a lot about why people are sharing some of their more special moments with us, and I’ve realized that with a blank piece of paper, you can begin the next chapter of your life. There are a lot of metaphors of storytelling and stories and chapters. We’ve had a lot of proposals on that typewriter.

What are some of your other favorite sections of the book? Or surprising moments involving the typewriter?

Mike: I’m pretty much the only person who reads all the notes there. Over the years, I’ve felt this obligation to read them. If somebody’s going to come in and write something, I want to read it. It’s sort of the diary of our bookstore; I want to see what messages people are leaving. The hardest notes are the ones about grief, or loss, or loneliness. When I’m reading these notes in my office, I feel emotionally connected to them. And so when we put together this section of catharsis in the book, which I always knew we would do, it was difficult to edit and curate. How many notes about sobriety do you want to include? How many notes about loss? Which notes about loss do you think are the most impactful? That was just a difficult emotional process.

My co-editor Oliver Uberti and I took the stack of notes we’d saved up over the years, and we distilled it down to 100 or so of our favorites. We separated them out by category, and then interspersed throughout those notes are essays about that section, or kind of introducing that section, and then photographs, both from our store and myself, and from a lot of our customers. There have been so many wonderful anecdotes, little vignettes that have happened with the public typewriter. Once, the typewriter fostered this pen-pal relationship between a seven-year-old and a street performer werewolf known as the Violin Monster. They began corresponding via the typewriter. So we used some of the essays to write about some of those behind-the-scenes vignettes.Literati Bookstore

What do you like to read when you’re not working at the store or on this book?

Hilary: A lot of what I read is literary fiction. And, oh man, I read some really dark stuff. I get people who come into the bookstore all the time and say, “I want a light read.” It’s really hard for me to think of something to suggest! For example, one of the books I’m reading right now is Census by Jesse Ball. It’s about a father who’s dying and takes a road trip with his adult son who has Down syndrome, so it has some heavy themes, but it’s just really, really beautiful prose and such a beautiful story. I also love literary essays. Rebecca Solnit is my favorite. The Faraway Nearby and A Field Guide to Getting Lost are some of my favorites by her. I like books that come in that vein that cover many topics in beautiful, beautiful prose.

Mike: I love reading literary fiction, same as Hilary. I love books that engage you from the first page with interesting plot and setting, but also contain sentences you want to underline, words and phrases you just haven’t read before. I just finished A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, which I think is a perfect book. And when I say perfect book, I just mean, for me, it has the ideal balance of prose and plot. I love that book so much. We’re both excited for two June releases. One is—I’m going to make a plug here—Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li, who’s one of our booksellers. We’re excited for her; it’s her debut novel. And then, Hilary, do you want to talk about A Place for Us?
Literati Bookstore
Hilary: A Place for Us is by Fatima Farheen Mirza, and it’s a story about a Muslim Indian family growing up in the U.S. The parents came from India and the kids are first-generation, and it tells their story from childhood to adulthood. It’s about what it’s like to grow up in America as a Muslim, trying to balance the cultural norms of the United States against your own family’s wishes for your future. It’s really wonderful. It’s a debut novel.

Mike: Can I make a plug for one book I think has been overlooked? Desert Boys by Chris McCormick is a short story collection that I think a lot of people would really enjoy. It just came out in paperback. After I finished that book, I had to take a long walk. It was so beautifully written. I just love that collection.

Are you seeing any trends in the book industry?

Mike: I’ll say from the marketing perspective—and this goes back a little bit to our history with opening the store—I think when we were writing our business plan back in 2011 and 2012, people thought that physical books were just going to go to the wayside. A lot has been documented about how that’s leveled off. There are some people who prefer eBooks, and some people who prefer physical books, and some people who do both, which is great. But I think there’s a real trend happening, which is a return to analog amongst younger book browsers. We’ve expanded our greeting card selection; we’ve expanded our notebook section; we just added a pen section. That was in response to younger people who were coming in and buying physical books from us. I think, and I experience this with myself, there’s a digital fatigue that is happening. I don’t think we fully understand what that digital fatigue and over-digitalization of our culture is doing to us, but I do see people actively choosing products that people once predicted would just go the way of the Dodo Bird.

Hilary: Since I do a lot of the buying for the store, I’ve seen a trend toward a broader range of voices being published, and in the books our customers buy. I think the diversity factor could be better, but I can see an effort by publishers to get different voices in, people from different countries and different backgrounds, and more works in translation, which I really love to see. I also love to see our customers take a chance on a book from small presses and debut authors. That’s something we love to promote in our store, and it’s nice to see customers actually respond in that way to those new voices.

Literati Bookstore

If you had to put it into words, what is your bookselling philosophy?

Mike: I think we pride ourselves on being extremely welcoming to anybody who’s interested in reading. I think some people get intimidated when they walk into a bookstore, especially if they haven’t been to a bookstore in a while or ever. We pride ourselves on feeling as un-intimidating as possible, greeting people when they walk in, smiling, being very welcoming. Putting the effort into customer service is something we really pride ourselves on. Not only helping people find a book that can change their lives, but also just welcoming them into the space is sort of our philosophy.

Hilary: And touching on what you said about helping people find a book that can change their lives, I think making sure we have a mix of titles that appeal to a broad range of people and ideas, and helping people find those books. Whether it’s through a conversation we have with a customer, or if it’s through a handwritten note we leave next to the book, just making sure people can find those books. Because we feel our lives changing through literature all the time, and we want to share that with readers as well.

Literati Bookstore

Is there anything else you’d like Read It Forward readers to know?

Mike: I’m assuming that most of the people reading this are already independent bookstore supporters, but I will say that independent booksellers are the most passionate people about literature and books and new voices, and are really at the forefront of not only selling these books, but talking about them, and getting these undiscovered voices out into the world. They’re doing work that’s very, very important—not just in literature, but in our culture. When you buy from an independent bookstore, you support that process. So I would just encourage everyone to support your independent bookstore!

Photography by Dane Hillard

MICHAEL GUSTAFSON is the co-owner of Literati Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He lives in Ann Arbor with his wife and Literati Bookstore co-owner, Hilary. OLIVER UBERTI is an award-winning graphic designer and was Senior Design Editor at National Geographic before turning to books. He is the co-author and designer of two books published by Penguin in the UK, London: The Information Capital (2014) and Where the Animals Go (2016). He lives in Los Angeles.

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