The Book Beat sits on the corner of a strip mall off of I-696 amidst a sea of concrete. That is the first thing you notice. The second is the cracked concrete planter filled with flowers. The third is the artist trees lining the shop windows. We don’t have a word for that mythic edge, where concrete ends and trees begin, but we know there is something there.
The Book Beat is a place you can spend hours. Their collection spans from books about art to artist books, sci-fi to punk rock, folklore to politics. The walls are filled with masks and oddities. It is a locus of literature, art, and music, and you can feel it. At its foundation is the corner labeled in neon letters: KIDS.
I sit down with co-owners Colleen Kammer and Cary Loren on a Sunday evening, the sun still filtering through the windows and the booksellers bustling to close up shop. When I ask about their collection, they say it is simple. They sell what they like and what their readers like.
“The book as an object is an authentic thing. It is something you can hand to someone, something you can give,” Cary says.
He hands me the compiled Destroy All Monsters zines from 1976-1979, when the band was active in Ann Arbor, reprinted in a garage somewhere in Detroit. The pages are pulpy. The dystopian images and texts imprint on me like an Eisenstein montage.
We start talking about the future of independent bookstores, Amazon, mass markets, electronic books, the nature of freedom, and I begin on a tangent, easily primed by dystopian imaginings. But Colleen has a way of centering the conversation on distilled pieces of wisdom. “It is our choices that define where we live, what our communities look like.”
“I’m a little person, in a little bookstore, doing little things to move things forward. That is all I can do,” she adds.
When author Kwame Alexander was scheduled to read in Detroit, she called up the parents. Just a week prior to the event he had been awarded the Newberry Medal for his novel, The Crossover. One father took his son out of school for the event.
Colleen hands me a book she advocates to have put in school libraries. It is titled Random Kindness & Senseless Acts of Beauty and is illustrated by Mayumi Oda, an anti-nuclear activist from Japan. She says the illustrations are a bit subversive, so several libraries declined, but that it’s an important work. I thumb the pages. There are scenes of violence: machine guns, tanks, fire, a dead tree, and two characters, frogs, who have been made victims. But there are also scenes of hope. The steps we take now decide what kind of earth that will be. In every moment we live we have the choice to fight the fight or make delight. We have power. It’s a circle. So start the dance. I carefully set the book on my lap and come to suspect that the little things Colleen has done to connect authors, readers, parents, children, schools, and libraries are an intricate web that extends far beyond the highways of metropolitan Detroit.
After the store closes, Colleen and I walk through the section labeled KIDS, but where we are both at home. She opens the tomes of pop-up artist Robert Sabuda. We flip through Coretta Scott King Award winners, past and present. She picks up a copy of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, and says, leafing through the pages, “Imagine if you were a little girl and this was your bedtime story.” An illustration of Frida Kahlo catches my eye, a woman I didn’t know of until I was twenty, and I do imagine. I imagine the stories of women I still don’t know of.
There was one only thing Colleen and Cary asked me to write down in the time that I was there, one thing that should be part of the record, the wise words of fellow bibliophile, customer, and friend, Toby Holtzman, who had recently passed. Read to your children and grandchildren. Take them to libraries and bookstores!
The Book Beat just celebrated 35 years. When I asked Colleen what her recipe for success was she noted details: the names of people, the books they read. Then she made a gesture toward the rows of shelves with an open palm. “This is what we believe in.”
The Book Beat is located in the Lincoln Shopping Center at 26010 Greenfield Rd. in Oak Park. For more information, visit their website thebookbeat.com. But it would be even better if you made a trip to see for yourself what has kept them going strong for 35 years!