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February 15, 1996 - Image 15

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Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 1996-02-15

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The Michigan Daily - Wules, e . - Thursday, February 15.1996 - 5B

Local writer, Shaman Drum manager Taylor
describes growth of independent bookstore

By Elizabeth Lucas
aily Arts Writer
:Probably every University student
knows about buying textbooks at Sha-
nan Drum: going through an almost
hiddendoor,upanarrow flightofstairs,
aild then into rooms filled with books.
It's a unique Ann Arbor experi-
ence, and could also be a metaphor
forithe story of Shaman Drum itself
,there's much more to this bookshop
than a casual observer would notice.
Keith Taylor, the manager of Sha-
&an Drum, recounted the store's his-
tory in an interview with The Michi-
&an Daily. Shaman Drum was opened
by -Karl Pohrt in 1980, and Taylor
began working there in 1989, after
eight years working for Borders. Two
years ago, Shaman Drum moved from
the upstairs area to its present down-
stairs space.
"We just had those two rooms,"
7aylor remembered with a laugh. "We
ed to have to take one of them down
when we sold textbooks, then we had
to put it all back up again."
That unusual location would be
enough to set Shaman Drum apart,
but other features give it a distinct
place among Ann Arbor bookstores.
Taylor emphasized the fact that un-
like most of its competitors, Shaman
Drum is an independent bookstore.
"Right now, the fashion in the book
I usiness is to be like Borders -these
ig, mall-like stores," Taylor said.
"But I hope we can survive long
enough to see the fashions change."
Taylor explained the secret of Sha-
man Drum's success. "The standard
line for independent bookshops now,
all across the country -most ofwhich
are going out of business - is that
you have to find a niche. We've tried
to pick several sections in Borders
1at we can do better at: poetry, an-
thropology, literary criticism, clas-
sics. Quite frankly, ifwe tried to cover
as much as they do, we couldn't do it
as well, but we can pick certain side-
lines and do a better job."
In the Borders-Shaman Drum ri-
valry that Taylor describes, Shaman
Drum is at a certain disadvantage be-
cause of its smaller size. "Borders has
a much bigger support system," Tay-
r said. "I have friends who work
there still, and it's almost as if we do
different things for a living. Here, I'm
pricing the books, putting the books
in customers' hands, sending back

defective books ... you have to do
everything here, at all levels."
But one Shaman Drum specialty
that Borders doesn't share, however,
is selling students textbooks. Taylor
said proudly, "I don't know of any
other store in the country with the
same percentage of textbook sales,
that's set up like ours. They're over
half of our sales, and they've basi-
cally allowed us to keep this thing
afloat."
Shaman Drum's clientele is fairly
different from the norm, as well. Tay-
lor drew another comparison to Bor-
ders: "Any store as large as Borders,
you're going to alienate people. But
one of the things that allowed us to
start this place was that we had a base
of customers. "
Taylor continued, "We're tied to
two communities: the University of
Michigan, and the city- and state-
wide literary community. In many
ways, these are not the writers who
are the best-known. Jim Harrison, say;
we're Jim Harrison's bookshop."
Having a regular group of custom-
ers helps to publicize Shaman Drum,
too. "We rely a lot on word-of-mouth,"
Taylor said. "And if you do things
that are interesting enough to the com-
munity around you, they have to pay
attention to you - like the readings
we do. To get a writer like Jamaica
Kincaid, who wanted to come here
and not to a chain store - that's a
great boost." (Kincaid's Jan. 29 read-
ing at the Michigan Union was ar-
ranged by Shaman Drum.)
Book signings and readings are one
way for Shaman Drum to reciprocate
their word-of-mouth publicity. Tay-
lor said that Karl Pohrt, the store's
owner, had held book signings there
since the early '80s, but that readings
became more common when the store
changed location.
"We moved down here thinking,
'We can get 30 or 50 people in here,
won't that be nice,"' Taylor said
wryly. "Yeah, nice idea. The trouble
is, we get a hundred people. It's a lot
more popular than we thought it was
going to be."
Taylor described how a different
group of people can be seen at every
reading. "Gary Snyder, for example,
is a writer with a certain cult follow-
ing ... and the whole cult came down.
Then Jamaica Kincaid came, and there
were many regulars there, but there

wasn't much overlap with the Gary
Snyder crowd."
Readings are also the newest point
of contention between Borders and
Shaman Drum. "There's direct com-
petition, because sometimes Borders
will be angry we got a certain person
and they didn't," Taylor said.
"They didn't use to do readings at
all, and I didn't think that they were
competing with us - I thought we
were too small. But when they dis-
counted the Jamaica Kincaid book
("The Autobiography of My Mother")
by 30 percent after the reading, that
was definitely choosing to compete
with us."
Shaman Drum's readings influence
many other areas of the literary com-
munity. Taylor is himself a writer
who has published four collections of
poetry and one book of short stories.
He stated that the bookstore tries to
publicize the works of lesser-known
writers in the Ann Arbor area. Taylor
named local writers Tom Lynch, Bob
Hicok, Charles Baxter, and Alice
Fulton as some of those who have
read at Shaman Drum in the past.
Some Shaman Drum regulars have
achieved wider success. Taylor cited
University alum Laura Kasischke as
one example of this phenomenon.
"She came here as an undergradu-
ate, won a slew of Hopwoods, went
all the way through her MFA at Michi-
gan ... Now she's got two award-

winning books of poetry and this gi-
gantic novel coming out. Here's some-
body I've known as a writer since she
was 18. She's been a part of the com-
munity, one way or another, and is
now part of the broader literary com-
munity, and that's particularly grati-
fying. To be around people as they're
just doing the writing that gets them
the big reputation, that's a great feel-
ing."
Shaman Drum, as one of the last
independent bookstores in Ann Ar-
bor, is also one of the last places to
provide this type of literary commu-
nity.
"There are definitely fewer
bookshops now than when I arrived
here, in 1980," Taylor said. "By the
mid-'80s things were changing, and
by 1990 Ann Arbor had come to pretty
much reflect the book business in the
rest of the country."
Taylor related this to an overall
change in the community. "Ann Ar-
bor, on the whole, is a lot less of a
college town. There are a lot of
wealthy people in high-tech indus-
tries who choose to live here, and
they're more prone to shop at Bor-
ders. Also, many people here still
think of Borders as an Ann Arbor
store, when it's not anymore, and
hasn't been for five years."
Still, Taylor believes that Shaman
Drum can continue as an example of a
flourishing independent bookshop.

Keith Taylor, manager of Shaman Drum Bookshop, strikes a pensive pose.

"I think, both in selling textbooks
and trade books, that we really are
different. We're doing things that the
popular press says small businesses

can't do. What people do when they
stand in line to buy textbooks here -
it really is more than just buying
textbooks."

We still need male models for
our spring fashion issue! If you
want to be one of them drop off
* a recent photo of yourself, your
phone mumber and e-mail ad-
dress in the basket in the Daily
Arts office at 420 Maynard.

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