In early May, Bookbound Bookstore owners Megan and Peter Blackshear announced their store would be closing permanently this summer. Opened in the spring of 2013, it wasn’t long before this mom and pop “independent community bookstore” on Ann Arbor’s northside became well-known for its thoughtfully curated selection and recommendations by its well-read owners. The closing of Bookbound will be deeply felt among Ann Arbor’s book community and the store and Megan and Peter will be greatly missed. Though their closing date is still uncertain, they expect to close at the end of June or early July. Visit their website for updates, and be sure to stop by or visit their bookshop.org storefront to support them while you still can!
We are grateful to Megan and Peter for taking time from this busy moment in their lives to answer some questions compiled by our board.
What surprised you most about the reality of running a bookstore compared to your plans for it?
Megan: I had never worked retail before this, and it is notoriously thankless work. I’ve heard so many horror stories so I was trying to be prepared for that. But after eight years, I can count on one hand the times I felt truly disrespected by people in our store. Folks gave us the benefit of the doubt from day one, both as booksellers and as human beings. They put trust in us and offered friendship and support. It’s been hard for me to refer to anyone as a “customer” because that is so transactional in light of the real connections we made with people, even many of those who just stopped in once or twice. I was not expecting any of that.
Peter: I will second what Megan said about the graciousness of our customers. Years ago I did work retail, and while most interactions were pleasant enough, few had any depth. In contrast, many people who shopped at Bookbound went out of their way to show personal kindness and to get to know us. We’ve developed meaningful friendships that I expect will last long after we close up shop.
What did you find most difficult about running a bookstore on a daily basis?
Megan: That’s just it – “a daily basis”. As a mom-and-pop shop we just had to run like energizer bunnies day after day. No sick days, no real breaks. Regardless of what was happening in our personal lives we had to be there, and we had to be on point. I lost both of my parents over the last few years. My father died just before the extremely busy, and theoretically joyful, holiday season in 2019 and I barely had a moment to process it. At times like that I used the mantra “the only way out is through”, a paraphrase of a Robert Frost poem.
If someone told you they planned to open a bookstore in Ann Arbor, what advice would you give them?
Megan: Be prepared to work really hard, but keep some kind of work/life balance or you will burn out. Ann Arbor is a tough town for a small business. While there are plenty of book-lovers and folks who have the resources to buy books, it is expensive here. You either need to have the scale necessary to afford plenty of staff to help get the work done, or you need to find an affordable space that allows you to keep shorter hours than we did. And most importantly, listen to your customers and your community so you can make the best choices about the books you carry. You can look at sales reports to see what is selling, but reports can’t tell you what you’re missing.
Peter: Again, Megan is spot on. I’m recalling something else Megan has said in the past, which is something along the lines of “if we moved down the street we’d probably have to be a different bookstore.” There are millions of titles in print, and any one shop can carry only so many books. We learned quickly that national bestseller lists were almost meaningless in terms of predicting what our customers might want. Having conversations with your customers and really listening to them is how we figured out what books – and what kind of books – to stock. That said, shaping a bookshop is a two-way street. Your own tastes will have a bearing on the kind of customers you attract, and your customers will influence the books you choose to carry. Allowing that kind of give and take will help you build a core of loyal regulars. Read as much as you can, and read broadly, including subjects and genres outside of your comfort zone. One of the things people expect and appreciate most about a small bookstore is informed advice and opinions.
Were there any books that stood out as surprise bestsellers?
Megan: This question inspired me to run a report of our top sale items over the entire time Bookbound’s been open! What the report makes clear is that our recommendations made a huge impact – there are quite a few obvious bestsellers up there along with some bulk orders and event-driven sales, but many of the books near the top of the list are among our personal favorites. A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara is our all-time bestselling children’s book. In fiction, our top titles include Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, Negar Djavadi’s Disoriental, and N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. Adult nonfiction books include Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil. And our single bestselling book of all time is from a local artist – The Complete Works of Shakespeare in Three Panels Each by Mya Gosling. It spent years right near our cash register and we sold hundreds of copies!
Peter: I’d like to add that our bestselling titles were a tiny fraction of our total sales. The folks who shopped at Bookbound displayed an astonishing range of interests. It wasn’t unusual for us to order in an obscure title knowing that maybe three or four of our customers might be thrilled to know of its existence. Over time, we became accustomed to selling a book once or twice then moving on (without reordering).
Bookbound offered unique programing events, like Grown Folks Story Time, music on Saturday nights, and the monthly Open Mic & Share Poetry Series. Why was it important to you to offer these types of events?
Megan: We knew we weren’t equipped for hosting major author tours or anything, but we loved the idea of using our limited space to benefit the local artist and author community. The poetry series was the brainchild of our friend Leslie McGraw, and it turned out to be a perfect fit, lasting 7 seasons. She organized featured poets and acted as open mic emcee, and together we created a welcoming space for a wide range of poets – some brand new, some with lots of experience, to share their work in a judgment-free zone. So Leslie gets most of the credit for the success of that series. Patti Smith, a local writer and teacher, came up with the idea for Grown Folks Story Time which was always blast! Adults, often wearing pajamas, would read slightly skewed versions of kids books, short stories, and original work. We also learned through trial-and-error that book launch parties were really fun and successful, so we hosted a few of those each year for local authors, ranging from those with major trade publishers to small-scale self-publishing projects.
Peter: (nothing to add)
What will you miss most about running a bookstore?
Megan: Oh, the accounting, definitely. Just kidding! The people! This goes back to your first question. I am amazed at how many real, deep friendships we’ve developed, and we know many of these will continue into our post-bookstore lives. The spark of a shared love of books can turn a conversation into something very personal, or educational, or funny. While many aspects of running the store were predictable (or even tedious), every single day was different because of the people who came in. And being part of the community in general, and our quirky northside neighborhood in particular, was amazing.
Peter: Yes, the people. Both in the sense that Megan suggests, and in the sense that I learned so much from our customers. Ann Arbor has a reputation as a brainy town, but I really had no idea until we opened up shop. Every day we talked with people who were so excited by some idea or piece of information that they just had to talk about it – I don’t even think people were showing off, just finding pleasure in sharing knowledge or discussing a point of view. I’ll also miss easy (and often early) access to reading material.
Years from now, how do you think (or hope) you’ll look back on your experience with Bookbound?
Megan: If I never do anything cool or interesting again in my life, I will always have this experience to look back on! While it’s a little blurry and bittersweet now in the chaos of closing the store down, I already feel really good about the whole thing. I think we did a bang-up job in terms of our book selection and our relationship with the community. We accomplished what we set out to do with integrity. I have very few regrets. My faith in humanity was reinforced. I learned so much and grew a lot myself in the process. I will glean more from the experience as I reflect on it over the coming years, but overall I’m sure I will remember it in a positive way.
Peter: When Megan and I decided we really did want to open a bookshop, I think we both expected it to fail within a couple of years but we told ourselves we would rather regret doing it than wonder later what it would have been like. After eight years, we didn’t fail, nor do we regret the experience. It’s been exhausting, but also intellectually and emotionally rewarding. Ann Arbor has been home for me since around 1995, but before opening Bookbound I kind of existed in a few silos: I had my job at Borders, I participated in a sport, I frequented certain establishments, etc. It’s weird how spending so many hours in one spot – the bookstore – opened my eyes to so many other aspects of this town and made me feel like a member of the community in a way I hadn’t before. I was already middle-aged when we started Bookbound, but I think I’ll look back on it as a formative experience not unlike the way many people remember their years in school.
Do you have any thoughts on what comes next? Do you plan to remain involved in books in some capacity?
Megan: Sometimes I have a thousand thoughts, and sometimes none at all. The other day I was asked a similar question and answered something so cliché: “I have no idea who I am or what I want to do!”. Twenty-five years ago, that sentiment would have indicated a serious existential crisis or depression for me. Now, it feels like more freedom than I ever remember having. And there’s truth to it – running the bookstore has been all-consuming for so many years I need some time away from it before I can suss out anything. I will always be a book person, and it is quite possible that I’ll seek a livelihood in the world of books and writing. Once we’ve locked our doors for the last time, I need to step away for awhile and figure it out.
Peter: Yes, I’ve had ideas – I can’t stop my mind from spinning – but I’m making a deliberate choice to postpone any serious thinking for the moment. We’re still running the shop, and working towards winding it down, and that requires my full attention. In the immediate future, Megan and I plan to take a bit of a break and focus on personal and family matters. We haven’t been able to give those things adequate time for several years. My livelihood has been connected to books for nearly my entire adult life, and I’m very attached to that world. I can easily see myself working with books again. That said, it might be nice to do something different and experience the pleasure of reading without feeling in the back of my mind that it’s a job requirement.