Forward: Open Letter from a Distressed Bookseller

February 17, 2009
Shaman Drum Ann Arbor

Shaman Drum Ann Arbor

Column: Open Letter from a Distressed Bookseller
Owner of Shaman Drum: “This is our darkest hour”

Karl Pohrt, owner of Shaman Drum Bookshop.
This fall and winter Shaman Drum Bookshop went into a steep financial decline. Textbook sales declined $510K from last year. We managed to cut our payroll and other operating expenses by $80K, but that didn’t begin to cover our losses.

There was some good news. Our trade (general interest) book sales on the first floor were actually up in December from last year by 10%, which is extraordinary given what many other retailers were reporting. And trades sales in January were up 15%. Still, this hardly compensates for our losses in textbook sales.

The evaporation of our position has been astonishingly swift. We had been holding relatively even financially until September. Suddenly we’ve moved into the red.

I sort of saw this coming.

In July, 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts published “Reading At Risk,” a report detailing the decline of literary reading in America. This was followed by a second report in November, 2007, “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence,” chronicling “recent declines in voluntary reading and test scores alike, exposing trends that have severe consequences for American society.”

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6 Responses to “ Forward: Open Letter from a Distressed Bookseller ”

  1. merwin on February 18, 2009 at 9:44 am

    I feel very little compassion for Karl Porht. Amazon has been around for years and has had the superior prices and selection over local bookstores since its inception. He might have wanted to change his business model a few years ago to adjust for the fact that Amazon (or another company) was going to eventually kill his textbook business. Relying on students to pay the prices you want for textbooks seems to be a precarious business model to rely upon these days. Students have always been looking for a cheaper way to get their texts and the internet was starting to offer ways to buy texts cheaper 4 years ago. He sounds like someone who realized change was coming but did nothing to try and save his own business in the face of that change. Guess what Karl your business isn’t special and someone has come along that has done it better and cheaper than you. Either figure out a way to get people back in your store or close up shop and do something else.

  2. RustedJesus on February 18, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    I agree with you Merwin, that it seems at this point, to lament the loss of textbooks sales due to the competitive nature of online resources is counterproductive. Mr. Porht and other independent owners will have to search for other ways to make up for that loss. But I don’t think we gain anything by lambasting Mr. Porht either. It seems to me that his column, while lamenting the way things are now, was also just plain old asking for help. I don’t think his plea was meant for us to change our ways and to quit buying textbooks from Amazon, but rather, help him to figure out a way to provide a valuable service to the community and stay afloat. To those ends, I emailed Mr. Pohrt yesterday. It follows:

    From: RustedJesus
    Date: Tue, Feb 17, 2009 at 4:56 PM
    Subject: solutions for a distressed bookseller?

    Dear Mr. Pohrt,

    I read your open letter in the Ann Arbor Chronicle. Actually, I got a link to it at (so the word is traveling). I share your concerns as a bookshop browser, English Ph.D. student, and a composition teacher. I can’t offer any specific advice but I have frequented a couple of successful independent bookstores associated with large public universities. The least I can do is direct you to them in hopes that their owners may be able to offer advice.

    I received my bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Michigan, so I frequented your store quite often. Here are three other stores that are similar to yours.

    I received my Master’s degree at the University of Massachusetts. There are actually two stores in Amherst that seem to be doing at okay. Perhaps their owners can be of help. One is a collective, it is called Food for Thought Books. Here is there contact info:

    Food for Thought Books
    106 N.Pleasant Street
    Amherst, MA 01002
    Tel: 413-253-5432
    Fax: 413-256-8329

    The other store in Amherst is independently owned and operated. It sells textbooks as well. It is called Amherst Books.

    Amherst Books
    8 Main Street Amherst, MA 01002

    I am currently a Ph.D. student in English the University of Florida. Here we have a bookstore called Goering’s. Goering’s seems to have a some sort of deal set up with the English department in which it is the only store on campus that provides “textbooks” for English classes (maybe just grad classes). But they seem to be doing okay as well. Here is there contact info:

    Goering’s Book Store
    1717 NW 1st Ave
    Gainesville, FL 32603
    (352) 378-0363

    Of course, these stores may be suffering as well and just haven’t made their woes public. But maybe, just maybe, they can help. I wish you all the best. Please stop by and leave a note! We’d love to hear how things go. You can view the post about your store here:

    I write under the pseudonym RustedJesus, so I can’t take credit for posting your column to the site.



  3. nonpretentious on February 18, 2009 at 11:32 pm

    some comments (if they have more than a few links) have to get approved. if you’re signed in, you should be able to approve your own comments.

  4. revisingproust on February 18, 2009 at 11:34 pm

    i agree.

    i also think it’s kind of funny that we have sponsor links to amazon all over our site.

    (not that it makes us bias!)

  5. Matt Erickson on February 20, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    “Luddite” is one of those words that I have only seen four or five times in my life. It is always in the same context, which is in the phrase, “I’m no Luddite,” followed by a vague appeal to emotion (suspicion of incoming technology, and glowing nostalgia for what it displaces). Of course, when it’s your product – and livelihood – that’s being displaced, appeals to sentimentality arise out of desperation. So we’re supposed to feel guilty for

    1) not reading more
    2) not going to independent bookstores
    3) buying things online
    4) reading things online
    5) not supporting local businesses

    Guilt and sentimentality don’t really motivate me to spend money, particularly when bookstores as we know them are doomed no matter what – technology marches on, seemingly with a will of its own, unmoved by nostalgia or ethics.

  6. RustedJesus on February 24, 2009 at 4:10 am

    See this is the thing. We need to read more carefully. According to Mr. Pohrt, Shaman Drum’s trade book sales were actually up last year. It’s the textbooks sector in which he is suffering. So no, you shouldn’t feel guilty for reading less, for not going to independent bookstores, for buying thins online, for reading things online, for not supporting local business.

    I agree with Merwin, and possibly Matt, that to be competitive once again in textbook sales is a lost cause for Mr. Pohrt and others in similar positions. But I do concur with Mr. Pohrt in that I believe that stores like his do provide a unique and valuable service when it comes to trade books (this includes poetry, biography, adolescent, childrens, and reference). In that way, I’m willing to help.

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