By Karen Alvarez
Schaller’s Bookstore operated from 1894 to 1905 at three locations in downtown Ann Arbor. Like many bookstores then and now, it sold much more than books. Wallpaper, stationery, fountain pens by Waterman and Laughlin, and art prints were among the offerings. Customers could order subscriptions to popular magazines of the day like Munsey’s, Cosmopolitan, and McClure’s.
Martin J. Schaller was born in Germany and came to Ann Arbor in 1885 at age 15. He gained bookselling experience in his teens and early twenties, working for the local store Osius & Company and later in New York for Rand McNally & Company. Upon returning to Ann Arbor 24-year-old Martin opened his own bookstore at what is now 203 East Washington (at the time it was 19 East Washington before the city changed its street numbers).
The bookstore’s grand opening coincided with the beginning of the school year. The public was enticed with a promotional giveaway of school supplies: embroidered school bags were given to girls and book straps to boys. Schaller’s also appealed to university students, promoting itself as “Headquarters for everything a Student needs in the line of Text Books, Stationery, and Miscellaneous Stock in general.”
Schaller’s seems to have had a successful first year; an 1895 Ann Arbor Argus announcement of Martin’s marriage to Bertha Weinmann said he was “one of the most prominent of our young business men” and that the couple moved into “finely appointed rooms over the Schaller store.” The bookstore quickly became popular in the city and beyond, gaining a mail-order clientele all over the state of Michigan and even reaching as far as Iowa.
Disaster struck one night in April 1897 when the building caught fire. News reports speculated that the fire started inside a wardrobe in the second-floor apartment. Martin and Bertha were not home at the time and the fire burned for quite a while before being noticed. Most of their furniture, clothes, and other personal possessions, which were not insured, were destroyed. The bookstore sustained serious water damage but it was covered by insurance and some of the stock was saved. Martin gifted the firefighters a box of cigars in thanks for saving his business from total destruction. He set about repairing his home and shop and held a fire sale soon after.
The Schallers lived in the apartment on Washington for a few more years before moving to a home just west of downtown. The bookstore moved to Main Street a few months after the fire. 203 East Washington has continued to house downtown businesses to this day, with ground floor retail space and an upstairs loft. It was the site of Metzger’s German Restaurant for many years and in 2017 became part of Haymaker Public House.The new location of Schaller’s Bookstore, 116 South Main Street, has existed since at least 1871. The building’s appearance changed drastically during the twentieth century; the original brick façade and upper-floor windows were covered with grey metal panels. The building received a 2017 restoration that returned it to its original design.
Martin Schaller opened an additional store in 1902 at 226 South State (the northwest corner of State and Liberty). Eager to compete with Wahr’s and other booksellers close to campus, he advertised regularly in the Michigan Daily and installed telephone lines in both stores. Despite appearances, though, the business was not successful enough to last much longer. Schaller’s closed in 1905 and Martin declared bankruptcy the following year. He sold his inventory to Thomas H. Slater, whose family owned a local bookstore called Sheehan & Company.
In the years after closing the store Martin Schaller worked as an agent for various newspapers. For the last five years of his life, from 1935 to 1940, he ran the College Supply Shop at 601 East William. In a stroke of irony, his lost bookstore eventually made it back into the hands of his family, in a way. His daughter, Florence, married into the Slater/Sheehan family, assumed ownership of their bookstore, renamed Slater’s, and ran it successfully for more than 40 years.
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