Sunday, March 8, 2009

Shaman Drum Bookshop and the Realities of Market Changes

Last month, a friend of mine who lives and works in Ann Arbor, Michigan sent along this Chronicle column by Karl Pohrt, owner of the local Shaman Drum Bookshop. His profile of his store's "steep financial decline" is a depressing on a personal level. As a graduate student in popular culture studies at Bowling Green State, I made the seventy-mile trip up to Ann Arbor fairly frequently, and Shaman Drum was always one of my favorite stops. Pohrt's description--"a first-rate browsing store for books in the humanities in the university neighborhood"--is accurate. I consistently came across academic titles in cultural studies and ethnomusicology that would have been extremely difficult to find in most other bookstores. It was always pleasurable and surprising to scan their shelves.

Shaman Drum's concentration on academic humanities titles certainly has its drawbacks, even during better times. After some reflection, I can't say that I'm terribly surprised at the number of local commenters who describe having "never really felt welcomed," "uncomfortable," etc. I don't personally remember ever having unfriendly exchanges with their staff, but the store (if you'll pardon the pun) does march to a different drumbeat. Its setup is wonderful for browsing, but many shoppers probably aren't going to experience the same "finds" that they might at, say, the flagship Borders (which is just around the corner). In this regard, Shaman Drum benefits from its surrounding environment--a top public university nearby, several high-quality bookstores located in the same district, and the liberal, scholarly climate of Ann Arbor. It has had the luxury to cater to a fairly specific target market.

Of course, it was much easier for Shaman Drum to specialize when textbook sales were robust, and Pohrt's laments about the University of Michigan's new online textbook listing policies is understandable. At the same time, I have to agree with commenter Jim Canty's post on textbook purchasing in person. The traditional system of buying textbooks through stores is, on the whole, an acutely unpleasant experience, and one where students are typically at a financial disadvantage, whether they are buying or selling. And, as Canty alludes, Pohrt's theoretical argument--that brick-and-mortar bookstores offer the "intangible value" or browsing and talking with informed staff--is important, but simply doesn't hold water when it comes to textbook sales. I'd love to talk to a student that treasures the "intangible value" of a textbook store while standing in long lines and often paying to much for used books of questionable quality.

Nevertheless, Pohrt's right in that there aren't really "villians" responsible for changes in the textbook market. It's simply the same shift that's occurring with regard to general book sales, and working out a solution that leaves Shaman Drum anywhere near financial solvency will be extremely difficult. Despite disagreeing with him on the textbook issue, it'll be a sad day if his store closes, so I found his column to be a downer. The column is well worth reading, though, and the commenters offer thoughful opinions on a host of related issues, including Pohrt's current efforts to classify Shaman Drum as a non-profit organization.

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