22 July 08 | Chad W. Post

Weeks ago, I mentioned the idea of interviewing a number of booksellers on the state and future of independent bookselling and book culture in general. My goal is to talk from a wide range of booksellers, managers, owners, and buyers, to get as many different viewpoints as possible from the people who are at the “front lines,” so to speak.

First up is Karl Pohrt, Owner of Shaman Drum, co-founder of Reading the World, and creative force behind There Is No Gap (where this interview will also appear).

Chad W. Post: How did you get into bookselling?

Karl Pohrt: I recently came across a sentence by Orhan Pamuk from Other Colors: “To carry a book in your pocket or in your bag, particularly in times of sadness, is to be in possession of another world, a world that can bring you happiness.” The book, in this formulation, is an emblem or icon of solace. That’s always been true for me.

In Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf argues that it’s important to read to children because they will grow up associating being loved with reading. Both my parents read to me and my brothers when we were young.

For years I believed that one day I’d open a book that would explain everything. I trace this directly to my early religious education (Presbyterian), but I bet many of us share this fantasy. Jews, Muslims and Christians are, after all, People of the Book.

When I was in elementary school I frequented the neighborhood branch of the Flint Public Library. I also purchased comic books at the local drug store (Uncle Scrooge, Classics Illustrated) with my weekly allowance. Books, comic books, and later bookshops (along with movie theaters), were portals to a wider world.

I was a conscientious objector during the Viet Nam War, and I worked in a hospital for two years in lieu of military service. One of my daily tasks was to transport cancer patients to the Radiology Department for cobalt radiation treatments. This was rewarding but oftentimes depressing work. The patients I worked with didn’t get better. After my shift, I hung out in the bookshops because these places made me feel good.

In 1972, when I finished my stint at the hospital, I started working in a bookshop. After a few years I went to graduate school and I taught English for three years. In 1980 I returned to the book business and started Shaman Drum Bookshop.

CWP: What has it been like running an independent store literally down the road from the Borders headquarters? I have to say, it used to be a running joke with the Borders people I met with that they all shopped at Shaman Drum.

KP: It’s relatively easy to sell books in Ann Arbor. This is a good book town. The flagship Borders store, which is right around the corner from Shaman Drum, is a general interest store. We specialize in literary and scholarly titles. Of course there is some overlap, but the customer base is different.

CWP: What role in book culture do you think Shaman Drum (and/or all independents) plays?

KP: I think independent bookshops are essential for a healthy book culture. Variety is the key to a robust and vital intellectual life.

A climax community ecosystem seems to me to be a good metaphor for the ideal book culture. It’s a system that contains a maximum diversity of life forms. If a disease or predator moves through the community and wipes out a few species, the system will probably recover fairly quickly.

To deliberately reduce life forms by, say, draining a wetlands or clear cutting an old growth forest and then replanting it with just one or two crops makes an ecosystem much more vulnerable. If a disease moves through this community, it’s probably finished.

Category management might work in a supermarket, but it’s not appropriate for the life of the mind. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

This is the big picture. On a more specific level, the independent bookseller retail channel launches books and acts as an early warning system for publishers.

CWP: That’s an interesting metaphor—one that I think is applicable to independent publishers as well. Seems to me that indie bookstores and indie publishers share a certain outlook (and business practices)—do you see a natural alliance between these two groups?

KP: Yes, absolutely. As you well know, many independent booksellers and indie publishers are pals, but we need to create more explicit partnerships and alliances. Maybe the new ABA IndieBound program would be a good vehicle for these projects.

CWP: What are the biggest challenges for Shaman Drum? For independents?

KP: The decline of reading, the shrinking of public space and the lack of leisure time are all terribly difficult problems. You could add to this list an economy in freefall, the rising price of oil and incompetent political leadership (which hopefully will change soon). I fall back to a theological vocabulary in the face of all this. I would describe these as spiritual issues because spiritual is the most inclusive word I can think of.

And the business model for bookstores isn’t very good. We need to think carefully about new business models. We need to figure out how to pay ourselves and our employees adult salaries. Otherwise, we’re asking everyone to commit to lives of voluntary poverty. Of course, this would be just fine if you think of bookselling as a religious vocation, but I find fewer young people out there these days who believe.

CWP: The “war” on the middle class hasn’t made this any easier. And the problem seems to be exacerbated at the chain stores, where there’s a clear financial division between management (enough to survive) and booksellers (not even close). I can imagine that it’s getting harder and harder to find young people interested in staying in bookselling for the long haul. Do you see a younger generation of booksellers coming along that will own and run all the great indie 10-20 years from now?

KP: In the past twelve months Harvard Bookshop’s Frank Kramer passed the torch to Carole Horne and Vromans’ owner Joel Sheldon appointed Allison Hill Chief Operating Officer for his store.

And it is important to note that a number of young booksellers who work in ABA member stores have organized an Emerging Leaders group. Megan Sullivan (Harvard Book Store), Jessica Stockton (McNally Jackson) and Jenn Northington (King’s English) are among the talented young people who are involved in this organization.

CWP: Several of the people I’m hoping to interview as part of this series . . . Going back to your comment on needing a new business model, I know Shaman Drum is becoming a nonprofit (the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center). What is this going to entail for Shaman Drum?

KP: You can read the current version of our plan at our website.. The plan will probably change, so stay tuned.

CWP: This is an incredibly ambitious plan (really—everyone should take a look), and one that would do a world of good for Michigan’s book culture. One of the things that I find interesting is how the store is being incorporated into something larger, and that rather than selling the store, you’re converting it into a nonprofit, and essentially giving it away to a board of directors to use in order to grow the GLLAC. What led you to this decision? And on a broader scale, do you think the nonprofit route is something other indie bookstores should explore?

KP: I’m sixty years old. I love what I do, but it would be irresponsible not to plan for future contingencies. I would prefer to see the bookshop live beyond my tenure here, and I was very impressed when I visited the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis a few years ago. I thought my bookshop might function as a node around which people could organize a center that celebrated the culture of the book. This culture is endangered, so the nonprofit route seemed the way to go.

Booksellers talk about being indispensable to the communities they serve, but is this really true? I thought I’d test it out by giving my store to the community. We’ll see what happens.

CWP: What do you think the future holds for Independent bookselling, 5-10 years down the line?

Given the rapidity of change these days, it is very difficult to speak with any authority about the future beyond a three year horizon. I admire Peter Osnos’ Caravan Project and I’m interested in how that develops. I also believe that what we think of when we use the noun book will be around for a long time because it is still such an efficient technology.

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