5 Awesome Indie Bookstores in the Motor City
A sad and contentious statistic, stating that Detroit has a 47% illiteracy rate, has been circulating the internet since 1998. CCSU’s annual analysis of the most “literate” cities usually ranks Detroit at about 50-something out of 75. While that’s not the worst position, it doesn’t accurately portray Metro Detroit culture and the people who live there and support it. On paper, many post-industrial cities in the middle of America look excruciatingly similar. It’s easy to judge a place based on statistics of positive and negative virtues, forgetting that that these cities are made up of people.
On a recent trip home to visit my family I decided to visit some favorite old haunts and explore some new ones, in order to help paint a more realistic picture of what is going on there literarily. What I gathered from interviewing these different storeowners is that while the book business is not about making a lot of money, or even about necessarily loving to read, it’s about loving the interaction that comes with people who love books.
That wonderful musty smell that can only found in old books? Imagine being overwhelmed by four floors of it, and that’s just the main store. There are two other smaller locations, one near Detroit’s cultural center and another in suburban Ferndale. King got started selling used books out of the trunk of his car in 1965, and now with millions of used books in stock, he says he has no favorites: “I sell used books. I can’t have favorite writers, because when you sell used books you can only favor the books that come in.” I guess that’s the attitude you need to have in order to expand and acquire millions of books, some of which can be found on their website. This is the kind of place where you can get lost for hours, and where you’ll never come out empty handed. Great for collectors of rare or out-of-print books, treasure hunters looking for first editions, and books with more than just an interesting narrative on the inside, but on the jacket and cover as well.
Mostly known as an alternative place for local college students to get their textbooks, Marwil also has an awesome selection of new books, magazines, and best sellers on sale for 20 percent off (new hardcovers are discounted as well). In order to compete with the local Barnes and Noble, Marwil decided to up their game by taking the 20 percent off hit out of their own pockets. Originally run by the Marwil family, the store was bought by its current owners, the Kramer family, in 1983. Marwil has been an institution in the neighborhood for 60 years now. This store bends over backwards to please its customers, in a way that feels foreign to those used to purchasing books online or from chain. Marwil also sells a lot of binders and notebooks (typical office/school supplies), and they have a yummy selection of general store type candies across from the cash registers.
Another wonderfully-smelling used bookstore. It’s much smaller than the West Lafayette location of John K. King Used Books that I visited, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in charm. Library Bookstore was originally a place to find new and used books, but since Martha Sempliner took over 30 years ago, it’s secondhand only. With news radio playing in the background, thoughtful quotes taped into the crevices of each bookcase, and a lot of old collectible magazines in great condition, The Library feels like the house of a grandparent who’s never gotten rid of anything they’ve ever enjoyed reading. Says Sempliner, “The best thing about the store is the customers, its the stories and the people and the sense of continuity. I have people who first came in here when they were four and now they are 24. People come here for a wide variety of reasons, not the least I hope that it’s because it’s peaceful in here.”
The Book Beat may be located in a strip mall, but inside it’s a paper-lined sanctuary filled with folk art and little oddities. Co-owned by husband and wife duo Colleen Kammer and Carey Loren, The Book Beat has survived two recessions. Loren says the key is keeping the store unique, well-researched and eccentric. They have an impeccably large and well-curated selection of photography and rare art books, as well as an award-winning children’s section and quality literature section. Kammer says what she loves most about the business is being a matchmaker, “discovering good books and then finding the people who would like them, to find the right person for it, and to know that it could be life-enhancing with just the pleasure of it.” She also enjoys guessing which books will be award winners. Take the children’s Newbery: if she thinks a book will be nominated, she’ll order a few extra copies to have some first editions for future and present collectors. Recently The Book Beat celebrated their 30th anniversary with loyal customers, local authors, cake, and artwork featured from their late friend, writer and lover of children’s literature Peter Sieruta.
The baby of the five stores I visited, Leopold’s Books has only been in business since 2009. When Greg and Sarah Lenhoff moved to Detroit in 2008, they decided they wanted to create their own jobs and add something new and non-threatening to the downtown culture. Both have experience in education and literature — they met while teaching English to middle schoolers in Bedstuy. Greg, who grew up in Detroit, missed the walkable, local bookstores of New York. He decided to create his own version of that, careful not to impose on the existing culture of the city. On the difference between two cities’ literary scenes, Greg said, “The rewards here are different than the rewards in a place like New York… the best version of success here is that people will come out to support you but none of us have any money. If you’re content with doing your reading of your short stories to the audience of five of us who are into that, as long as you’re content with that and sharing it locally, this is an amazing place to do it because people are really supportive.”
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— Lisa John Rogers is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. You can find her occasionally embarrassing herself here or here.