Karl Pohrt

Karl Pohrt
owner, Shaman Drum Bookshop, 311-315 South State Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tottered on: 8 May 2006
Temperature: 71 F
Ceiling: sunny
Ground: spring grass
Wind: SSW at 5 mph


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TT with HD: Karl Pohrt


[Ed. note: More information on the Ann Arbor Book Festival mentioned in the conversation below is available at the festival website or the Shaman Drum Bookshop's website.]

HD: We don't have to actually, you know ...

KP: ... go up and down?

HD: Well, go seriously up and down. Ed Shaffran and I, we basically sat balanced, so if at any time you feel queasy, or ...

KP: Nah, I think anything that 'Fast Eddie' can handle, I can do better [laugh]! Just kidding! I actually have enormous respect for him. We come from very different political perspectives, but I grew to have enormous respect for him.

HD: And that was working together on the DDA? You served at the same time?

KP: I was President, I think, one year and then he was the President the next year. So.

HD: Welcome to the teeter totter!

KP: Thank you. It's good to be here.

HD: It's a spectacular day, really. And I hope that you have weather at least this good on Saturday [13 May 2006] for the Book Festival Street Fair.

KP: Yeah, I just heard that it may be a little cooler than it is right now. But as long as the sun's shining, I figure that we'll be in good shape.

HD: I checked Accuweather this morning online for Saturday to see what it's looking like and it looks like really from here through Saturday, pretty much guaranteed nice weather. It's not like there's going to be some tiny window that you hope lands on the Book Festival. It's going to be great.

KP: Maybe the gods will shine down upon us, then. For the week.

HD: So one thing I wanted to ask you, the State Street reconfiguration?

KP: Yes?

HD: You lost a couple of parking spaces as a result of that right in front of your store. There used to be parking on the street, it was one-way, it was sort of confusing as to what you were supposed to do down there, really, if you were from out-of-town. Now it seems to have been simplified somewhat, but you lost two parking spaces, or maybe three depending on how you measure the frontage. Has that had any impact on your business that you've been able to notice?

KP: Not that I've noticed. I think that the trade-off basically for the two-way street was definitely worth it. Because according to all the experts that I've talked to, the two-way streets are more pedestrian-friendly than one-way streets. If you remember the configuration, the way the one-way streets were configured, it was nearly impossible to get, say, from North U. to the parking structure. And I always told people, you come to Ann Arbor and it was like joining some secret society in terms of figuring out where to park in the city, or at least find your way into the parking structures. So I was a champion of the two-way streets, and given that we just lost a couple of parking spots, really the trade-off for me was, it slows traffic down. I think that during the 60's and 70's, whenever they made that decision to make those streets one-way, that the idea was to get people from one end of the town to the other as quickly as possible. And at the turn of the new century here, I don't think we want to do that any more. We want to slow people down and bring them back into the center of the city instead of moving them to the periphery as quickly as possible.

HD: In conjunction with the Book Festival that's coming up, I can't remember when this particular event is, but you're moderating a forum called The Future of the Book?

KP: Yes.

HD: Or is it the Book of the Future? I'm not sure which it is. I guess The Book of the Future assumes there will be books in the future, it's a question of what they will be like. The Future of the Book is a bit more pessimistic, sort of calling into question whether or not there will be books. Do you seriously think that in the next 50 years we'll see a decline in the number of physically bound books with a spine and paper pages?

KP: I have no idea. And I think that given the rapidity of technological change, that anybody who makes any prediction beyond three years is basically whistling in the wind. Because things are changing so quickly. 550 years ago, Gutenberg came up with this moveable type and basically the technology around books has been very stable for the last 550 years. And we're now living in this moment when that's all changing. So this is the biggest revolution in terms of the printed word in 550 years that we're living through right now. People can speculate on the consequences, but there are a lot of unintended consequences to those sorts of cultural or technological changes.

HD: You mentioned a particular title during your presentation at the Digitization Symposium recently at the U of M ...

KP: ... oh, you looked at that, huh?

HD: Yes. Actually I followed a fair amount of it on the webcast. The reason it was on my radar is because Alicia Wise who came in from London ...

KP: ... yeah, a really nice person ...

HD: ... yes, she was a very enthusiastic teeter totterer.

KP: Am I going okay in terms of speed?

HD: Oh, you're doing fine. Yes. I try not to evaluate people's teeter tottering, but you're definitely in the top quartile, right now.

KP: I have performance anxiety about that! [laugh]

HD: Anyway, you mentioned this book title, Acclerando?

KP: Yes.

HD: So I checked it out on Amazon and there's a kind of a cheeky little blurb, it says something like, If you want to continue to live in the 20th Century, then you can order the book. Or you can just download the PDF files that constitute the book here for free.

KP: Yes.

HD: And that actually makes me less inclined to want to read the thing. Because to me there's something about the need for an activity to be appropriately difficult, in order to be worth doing. I'm not saying it has to be really really hard. But a book, it seems to me, should have a certain amount of threshold difficulty to obtaining it, because that somehow vets the content. At EMU, apparently all their student elections run off of an online system. And when I say all their elections, I mean all their elections, from student government, to Eastern Idol, a take-off on American Idol, anything that needs to be voted on at all, including frivolous things. It's all run off the same web interface. It's really easy, you can do it from your dorm room. And their participation in student government elections is abysmal. My analysis of that is: it's too easy; it should be appropriately difficult; you should have to go somewhere and say, This is who I want to be the student body president. In the same way, obtaining a book should be at least as hard as clicking and then waiting for it to arrive in the mail, as opposed to just downloading it. So to me, because I assume that everyone else in the world is exactly like me, that says that the future of a bound book with a spine is safe. Because it represents an appropriate level of difficulty for the exercise.

KP: That's very interesting. Another way of thinking of that ... I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday, actually, there were three of us talking together. And we were talking about podcasts. I gave one friend a number of addresses where she could go to get these interesting series of podcasts. She thanked me profusely for that and my other friend then said, But will you have enough time to listen to them? There's something about the ease of access to information. Everybody thinks that that's terrific, and it is. But you're still faced then with the problem: you've got access to tremendous amounts of quantity, but what about quality? And what about being able to assimilate it into your life, that information? What's the context for this? Which is another way of saying exactly what you've just said. And I worry about that a lot, or I think a lot about that. There was a Christian monk, Thomas Merton in the 20th century, who was actually a hermit, or lived in a hermitage in this very severe Catholic monastic tradition. He didn't have access to a television, he didn't have newspapers, he had a very large correspondence. But what he wrote was absolutely dead-on in terms of zeroing in on the sort of spiritual, political concerns of the late 20th century, and he had access to very little information. Instead of this sea of information, he was surrounded by an enormous amount of silence. And that seems to me to be worth thinking about. About a year, or year-and-a-half ago I was in a room with a woman who was the head of Disney Books. So her demographic in terms of marketing was: everybody in the world. You know, all the children in the world are potential Disney people or would potentially purchase Disney books and products. And she was talking about the kind of change that's occurring now and she said that it appears that for small children, their attention spans are shrinking, and in a measurable way. She said that the way to take advantage of this was to create and embrace what she called 'trans-media', that is, books packaged along with say CD's, DVD's that sort of thing ...

HD: ... in other words, surrender to the fact of their shortening attention spans and say, Well, what products can we still sell them?

KP: Exactly. Shorter sound bites. Or shorter bites of information. She got to the end of the talk and there were about 10 people in the room. I raised my hand and said that instead of embracing trans-media, I thought we should call 911 or call the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and have this declared a national emergency or a national illness in the way that they are now dealing with, say, childhood obesity. That shortened attention spans seemed to me to be ...

HD: ... a medical issue ...

KP: ... it's enormous. And you think about the complex problems that we're dealing with in a democracy, and what we need is not to dumb it down. We need to honor complexity. And I think it's a very dangerous situation for a democratic society to have: people moving towards these shorter and shorter attention spans. Because you can't develop complex arguments in five seconds.

HD: Well, actually it's an issue I struggled with in trying to come up with a format for presenting these conversations. One of the common threads of the feedback I've received is that they're interesting, but they're just so long. And comparatively speaking, they're far longer than the average newspaper article, they're at least magazine-article length, far longer than the typical blog post. I do realize there's a certain readership that's not going to appreciate that, and I'll perhaps lose out on a certain amount of readership precisely because of that. But to me, a whole conversation is far more interesting and has far more texture and nuance than what you'd get if you redact down to a single screen.

KP: That's great. And that's also not your demographic. I mean, in terms of who I think you're trying to reach, if can be as presumptuous as to say something like that. A number of years ago, some magazine editors got together and they looked at the attention span of people between 18 and 25 or 35 or something like that, but figured out what it was and then built a magazine around that. And it was People Magazine. I think that none of the articles at the time were designed to take longer than five minutes at most to read. Think about that compared to The New Yorker, when William Shawn was the editor of it. He gave people unlimited about of space to write articles, if they were good. In terms of the cultural divide, you know, the American book industry is a subset of the American entertainment industry ...

HD: ... well, it's not just a subset of that, it's a subset of the academic and research world and scholarship as well, right?

KP: That's right. But people embrace that with different degrees of intensity or something. For me, I wanted to do a store that took the life of the mind seriously. And at the same time, that can be fun. That can be fun rather than work. And so on that continuum, I'm way over on one end of it. The American entertainment industry, I know I'm part of it. But what I'm about is, I think, quieter than this loud American entertainment industry. You know, it's quieter, but it's infinitely more interesting.

HD: I read an interview with you done back in 1998, where you said the one word that you hoped would capture what your store was about ...

KP: uh huh ...

HD: ... do you remember what one word that was?

KP: No, I can't! What did I say?

HD: 'Welcoming'.

KP: Yeah!

HD: Is that the same word you'd choose today?

KP: Yeah. Because I have my core clientele, which are professors and graduate students in the humanities, but then there's everybody else. And I've found sometimes that people are intimidated by the store. That they feel ...

HD: ... that you have to be super smart and educated to go in there?

KP: Exactly. Somebody once told me that they didn't think they were smart enough to buy a book there! And this is not the kind of reputation that I want to have.

HD: Well, now you can address part of that issue with the online ordering system, right? I went online just to test it out and I typed in the title of this book that I guess was created in connection with the first Ann Arbor Book Festival, the Ann Arbor (W)rites book?

KP: Yes.

HD: According to the interface, you have 8 copies available in the store right now.

KP: [laugh] That's great!

HD: And I was able to ascertain that if I wanted to order that book I could get delivery, but it wouldn't be free because the threshold is 20 dollars and the book only costs 15 dollars.

KP: Right, you mean in terms of mailing it out?

HD: Yes. So when you guys use the word 'delivery' it sounds like somebody's going to come knock on my door and say, Here's your book! Is that the way it works?

KP: No. We mail stuff through the US mails. And we've been toying with the idea of doing delivery for free in the Ann Arbor area here for people who order books. But we haven't gotten it together to do that or to test that out to see if we could do that.

HD: You mean actual in-person delivery?

KP: Yes.

HD: Well, that would definitely hyper-differentiate you, because Borders is not going to do that, ever.

KP: No. It's very clear to me that the success or failure of the business is dependent upon marketing, giving the consumer ... you know, the bar is higher and higher in terms of what consumers expect. And we're trying to meet that.

HD: Maybe I'll just ask this next preview question and then maybe I'll have a follow up, depending on what your answer is. I was wondering if you, as a business owner, try to avoid controversy in local politics. I know that you're certainly not averse to weighing in on more global political matters, but as far as local politics, do you make a conscious decision to steer clear or to chart a more neutral course?

KP: Well, I actually ran, you know, in the First Ward, a couple of years ago. I ran against Kim Groome.

HD: I hadn't remembered that.

KP: Yeah. I'm 58 years old, so I came of age in the 60's. I was active politically back then. Since then, for the last 26 years I've been running this bookshop and have had to meet a payroll for the last 26 years and that changes one somewhat.

HD: It makes you a bit more practical, I would think.

KP: Yeah. I also grew up in Flint. I'm from Flint, Michigan and I saw that community fall apart. That was a terrible thing to see, so when I came here to Ann Arbor, I thought well this is a community that's worth defending and worth being involved in, and protecting and working for, at least my vision of what this place stands for. So I think was on the DDA for 9 years or something like that. I was President of the State Street Association for about four years, which is a long term. And I ran for City Council on an sort of pro-downtown ticket and I lost. I've been involved nationally, I was about 8 years on the Board of Directors of the American Booksellers Association, at a time when we sued Borders and Barnes and Noble for anti-trust violations. So I think of myself as very political. And I don't shy away from that. But I certainly don't like ... and I haven't thought this through, so this is going to be pretty tentative ...

HD: Okay.

KP: I was surprised, when I ran for City Council, by the amount of anger that surfaces around politics in this country. Political discourse in this country is filled with, and even in Ann Arbor, is filled with a lot of anger.

HD: I think it can very quickly become quite shrill.

KP: Yeah. And I thought that maybe in terms of my politics at this point in my life, they might be described as more Taoist or more Confucian than Democrat or Republican. You know, in the search for a consensus or balance, in the way that in Taoist or Confucian politics, if you can even talk about a Confucian politics. So I feel, if it has to do with a devolving of a political conversation into a sloganeering and trashing of people ... given the amount of time I have left on the planet Earth, I'm not sure that it's worth my effort. And it's also counterproductive, or I suspect that it's counterproductive on some deep and profound level. However, maybe that's what a democracy is: this sort of jostling and continual debate and back and forth with people with conflicting interests. So I have not thought this through. But I also feel that my energy would be better used in other areas.

HD: I think that particularly in local politics here in Ann Arbor, to draw an analogy to games: people want to play chess; they don't want to play Go. So chess is about crushing your opponent. Go is still about winning, of course, but you have to recognize that you're not going to control the entire board. You don't win a game of Go with a goal of owning every space. You have to concede that your opponent is going to have a certain amount of territory, and successful Go-playing entails learning how to share the board in a way that results in your sharing more of it.

KP: Do you play Go?

HD: I learned the rules of Go and I played for a very brief period. I discovered that I was really not very good at it, so I stopped playing. But I think it's a fair analogy. Do you think that the Greenway issue is a fair example of an issue where the discourse is needlessly polarized?

KP: Yes, I do.

HD: Actually, the question that I had wanted to ask you was about the Greenway specifically, but I wanted to assess whether you were willing to talk about a controversial local political issue.

KP: Well, Margaret Wong, who's been very involved [in the Greenway] was the person who did most of the architectural work in the interior of my store. So I have enormous respect for Margaret and for a lot of the people involved in that. When I was on the Downtown Development Authority, the Allen Creek thing, I was real interested in opening up ... but from the little information I was given back then, it seemed as if it would be absolutely impossible in terms of the expense of it, to do that. I still like to think at least that I have a bit of the Utopian in me from the early days, but in terms of imminent domain, declaring that on people would be political suicide to get the land, so I couldn't figure out how this would be done. In terms of putting in energy, this did not seem worth putting a lot of energy in. But yeah, I think that we live in this era of bifurcated politics, and you have a bifurcated world. So if you're for the Greenway, you have to be against, say, development of the downtown and putting money into the downtown. And I just think that's a mistake. It's a loss, where you could bring in allies and invite everybody to the table. But it seems as if, and I certainly could be wrong about this, but it seems as if the local political establishment, it's like they want to make the room smaller and smaller and smaller. And they're not interested in a big tent. I think that's a mistake. Because I've found in terms of doing anything in this community, that you need to have strategic partnerships with many different elements in the community. It's this winner-loser, up-down, sort of stuff that becomes the politics of exclusivity, and I think that's a mistake. I was in Boulder last year. For the last couple of years I've gone to the International Downtowns Association Conferences, from being on the DDA and also from the State Street Area Association. That's a collection of experts from around the country who gather once a year and talk about downtown issues. If you're really interested in that, and I think you are, given what I was looking at your website, you should call up Susan Pollay and ask her for information on that International Downtowns Association Conference. You might really enjoy that.

HD: I might have to figure out a way to build a collapsible teeter totter that I can check it through luggage. And maybe take it out and talk to some people on my portable teeter totter.

KP: Right, well, we were in Boulder, I was there with people from the DDA, the State Street Area Association, some City Council people, the Mayor was there. The people of Boulder were giving us a cook's tour of their town. But while we were there, the newspaper announced that the average price of a home in Boulder is now a half-million dollars. They crossed that divide.

HD: It sounds less, if you say 500 thousand.

KP: Yeah, 500 thousand. And they have a draconian policy about the height of buildings and they also have this marvelous Greenway that stretches for miles around the city. This is what some of my comrades on the Left are wishing for and this is what happens when you get what you wish for. And the city [Boulder] is filled with white people, I didn't see any people of color when I was walking around. In order for people to work the coffee shops, I understand that they drive in from 30 or 40 miles away to work. Well, that's like Johannesburg during the apartheid days, when people from what they would call the Soweto corridor would be bussed into Johannesburg to wait on the white people. I would not want to raise my family in a community like that. Maybe that's one of the unintended consequences of getting what we wish for? Is that fair to say that?

HD: Yeah, I think so. When I look at the Greenway issue, you tell me if you think this makes sense as an analogy: if you take the city and you compare it to a bookshop and you say, Okay, what am I going to put in my bookshop? I want to maximize revenue, so I want to put as many books in there as possible ... and by the way, do you track say how much revenue a particular lineal foot of shelf is throwing off?

KP: Yeah.

HD: I assume the city does the same thing with its parcels of land. So the Greenway is like if somebody came to you and said: Okay, Karl, what I think would be a great idea for your bookshop would be to take this entire section, get rid of all the book shelves and put in easy chairs and coffee tables, maybe even some couches. And that maybe would be great, people would go there just to sit and read through the books, but if you look at that square footage now, how much profit is that throwing off for the bookshop, it's not as much. And I see that as roughly equivalent. I just wanted to throw that analogy out there and get your assessment of it as to whether that's a useful and informative way of thinking about the Greenway.

KP: Yeah. The only problem that I have with it is quality of life matters. And if you don't have a chair to sit down on in the store, if you can only stand up, maybe you don't want to spend a lot of time there. The highest and best use of piece of land or an area of the bookshop such as what you're talking about here, there's a balance there. There'll be differences there, but what I want is a living and vital community, not a museum. Or someplace that's frozen back to some imagined golden era, golden age. That's going to mean that it's sort of messier than we would want. But it's ...

HD: ... when you say messier, you mean there might be a lot of really tall buildings or?

KP: Yeeaah. All those things. I'm for the tall buildings, but I don't think that necessarily means messier. I don't equate that with messier. And strictly for self-interest: I want a stabilized and diversified retail in the downtown area. The general consensus among experts in the field of cities is that you stabilize and diversify retail by having customers live as close as possible to the businesses. And if you build in the downtown, that will happen. I worry also about the aesthetics. That's a huge piece of it. It has to be beautiful. But, you know, we can do that. And we can do that with developers like Ed Shaffran. A lot of my comrades on the Left tend to demonize developers. Well, that seems silly to me. You know, there are some rapacious developers, just as there are people who are rapacious in any area. But there are also people like Ed or like Joe O'Neal, who want to be good people and make a contribution. I mean, they could develop outside the city. If there are too many rules, then that's what they'll do. But could there be a role for progressive developers and a role for them to do progressive things? Like, say, rehab the second floor of buildings for lofts so that people can live downtown? Or build up from there? I'm not talking anything wacked out here, you know, about 50-story buildings. But I think that we have to engage everybody. Everybody gets invited to the table with their own specific talents. When I was on the DDA, I realized that people like Ed and some other people, who politically were certainly not in my camp, but they knew how to do things that I didn't know how to do. So then the question becomes, it seems to me, where can we come together? What can we agree on? And there'll be place where we can't agree, let's not go there. Let's just talk about what we can agree on. And that, to me, in terms of politics, is the only exciting thing to do. Other than that, I don't want to be involved.

HD: Right down the street from you, the Buffalo Wild Wings building, I don't know what its actual name is, would you say that's been a success so far?

KP: I think it's butt ugly!

HD: No, tell me what you really think!

KP: It looks like some cheap motel. And I think of that building as opposed to the parking structure on Fourth and Washington. You have these two, one a parking structure and the other one a building, that were done rather recently. The parking structure, everybody's proud of that parking structure. They think it's beautiful. And it was all the attention to the small details ...

HD: ... yeah, the concrete relief images, the railings, which I think were initially installed backwards, but they got it right eventually.

KP: Yeah, all those little details, as opposed to the brick facade on the upper level, that's wallpaper on that building that's at the end of my street.

HD: So it's not real brick is what you're saying.

KP: It was an opportunity that was missed. And once one of those things gets built, it's so hard to re-build it right.

HD: So anything else on your mind today? You've got mostly Book Festival on your mind, I suppose?

KP: Yeah and I'm going next week, there's a big book fair in Washington D.C. ...

HD: ... is this in connection with the Read the World?

KP: Reading the World, yeah, which I've been very involved in. A couple of other booksellers and I got together and we've been working together on this for a couple of years. It's a project that's intended to try to get the American public to read more books in translation. This was right after the United States 'liberated' quote-unquote Iraq and we were talking about what the most progressive role for booksellers might be. We thought it would be to do this, to get people to read books in translation. Because it's harder to commit genocide against people who have a rich heritage and a rich culture, because they're then like us. So I'm real excited about that.

HD: Well, I want to ask you one final question which is, I suppose, totally cliche to ask you this, but I would be remiss if I didn't ask you: what's the last book you read?

KP: A book called In the Vinyard of the Text. I'm actually reading it now. It's by Ivan Illich.

HD: This is the same guy who did the transportation study back in the 70's?

KP: Yeah, he did Dechooling Society. He was, I think, a Catholic priest, who maybe left the priesthood, a Jesuit intellectual. And this is a book about reading, in the 11th and 12th Century, about the way that Hugh of St. Victor wrote the first book in the West on how to read, and it was how to read the Bible. I'm reading about this, because I'm trying to think about this digitization stuff, and I know we're moving into a new world, but I'm interested in: What are the losses? We're moving into this new thing, we're not going to stop it. But what are we losing? So basically that's what that book's about.

HD: Is that available at the store?

KP: I think I bought the last copy, but I'm going to order a bunch more! Paperback $15.95!

HD: Alright! Let me snap your picture and we'll call it a day.