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Mike Gustafson, Literati Bookstore


Welcome to Tin House’s Bookseller Spotlight, a new series of interviews with indie booksellers across the country. This week, we talk to Mike Gustafson of Literati Bookstore.


Tin House Books: What was the first book you read that made you fall in love with reading?

Mike Gustafson: Growing up in a small rural town, I was an outdoorsy kid who loved to play outside; “reading” seemed like something done indoors. So, I initially stayed away. I categorized reading as a “school activity” — a requirement. I didn’t understand that reading could be as fun as getting lost in the woods (which I loved to do), and could open up new, exciting worlds like those I’d discover in the backyard woodsy swamp lands I loved exploring. For example, I wasn’t aware it was possible to invent a new religion. That wasn’t a topic that people discussed in rural Michigan. Which is exactly what Kurt Vonnegut, another midwesterner, did in Cat’s Cradle. When I read that book, handed to me by a friend during formative years, it was such an eye-opening experience. You can invent new religions! You can invent new worlds! You can draw pictures of scandalous body parts and include it in a novel! Reading, for the first time, felt like an adventure, like I was wandering the paths behind my parents’ house just for the sake of wandering. I soaked up the rest of Vonnegut like a sponge, and I was hooked. As a bookstore now located in a college town, we get all kinds of students and younger people into Literati Bookstore who haven’t yet “read for fun” — math majors, engineers, students of various sciences. I love these interactions. “Here,” I say, handing them this new world of printed paper. “Read this. Lose yourself.”

THB: If you could spend the day with a character, who would it be and what would you do?

MG: I’d take my good friend Hanta — the protagonist I care about and deeply love in Too Loud A Solitude — to see a psychologist. “I’m concerned,” I’d tell him, “You’re muttering to yourself in our bookstore and, quite frankly, steal too many of our ARCs and cram them into your tiny studio apartment, and it simply doesn’t have enough room. I think you don’t realize your literary obsession will kill you, quite literally.” And he’d respond, “I can be by myself because I’m never lonely; I’m simply alone, living in my heavily populated solitude, a harum-scarum of infinity and eternity, and Infinity and Eternity seem to take a liking to the likes of me.” And I’d turn to the psychologist and throw my hands up and say, “See?”

THB: How has being a bookseller changed your relationship to books?

MG: Everyone chooses something to worship in life — money, love, lust, beauty, nature — and they spend a lifetime chasing that, even if they don’t know it. Being a bookseller means I am surrounded by people who have chosen to love and worship books. We have hired many former Borders employees, for example. These are people who have spent an entire lifetime around books. I love watching them interact with the books in the same way they interact with friends and people. I love learning why they picked up a particular book. What they love about a story or protagonist. What they love about the physical object of a book itself. Our manager, Jeanne, loves discussing book covers — what attracted her to that particular book, even if she had never heard about it before. Books are more than glued and bound pieces of paper. They take on greater significance for booksellers, and being a bookseller means I am surrounded by people who can see and value this. Being around people who have decided to love books as opposed to money or power, makes me feel good. Like I can absorb that passion, bathe in it.

literati bookstore

 What’s a recently released book you keep recommending?

MG: Chris McCormick’s Desert Boys makes me better understand my own childhood. Any great book does this; any great book you finish, set down, and enter this blissful, difficult, moving space of reflection. After I read a great book, I probably stare at the ceiling for 30 minutes, or I take a walk around the neighborhood at midnight. I need to be alone and reflect. Sometimes I think about people I once knew. Sometimes I think of my own experiences. When I finished Desert Boys, I thought about my own small town, group of friends, my relationship with shame and guilt and how you become who you become. Little Labors is another wonderful, odd, surprising and hilarious collection of words. This book felt like such a discovery, it’s so different, I love handing it to people — especially new parents with babies — saying, “Enjoy your little puma.”

THB: What’s a book you love that not enough people know about?

MG: I think people read to have realities either shattered or enhanced. Reading preference, for me, depends on the time of year. During winter — when I’m isolated from the outside world and there’s a polar vortex bursting through my 100-year-old house — I want to shatter my perception of reality. I’m ready for reality-shattering, with covers pulled up and curtains drawn. In the summer, like now, I’m outside a lot; I like to feel part of the world as opposed to feeling removed from it. When the weather is warm, I read to have reality enhanced; I choose books that enhance my relationship with the world like salt and pepper enhances a meal. One book that is wonderful for the enhancement of the natural world is Haunts of a Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero. I love to swim outside, lap swim, immerse in lakes and rivers, and be in the water. There’s not enough great writing about man’s connection and love with swimming and the water, and this book by Charles Sprawson helps enhance my relationship with water and swimming. Another great author for summertime: Keith Taylor’s poetry and prose, I love. He’s an outdoorsman, and he writes in a way that makes me feel more connected to the Earth, our surroundings and our environment. It’s the perfect kind of prose to read on a hammock under a tree in the summer. His collection of prose, Life Science, is one of my favorites, and includes one of my all-time favorite pieces about being a bookseller, and how those fidgety, unruly books end up shifting around on their own during the wee after-hours in a bookshop.
Mike Gustafson opened Literati Bookstore with his wife, Hilary, during the spring of 2013. Literati Bookstore is a 4,000-square foot independent general bookstore located in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor, featuring three floors of books, and hosting 150+ events and author readings a year.He lives with his wife and two cats in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
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