Thursday, July 2, 2009

Local Love Fridays: Finding Good Books at Motte and Bailey Booksellers

"Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered." - W. H. Auden.

This is one of several, pithy phrases that are posted across large planks in the feast of visuals that is Motte and Bailey Booksellers.

I think this phrase sums up why this is a very special bookstore. It also speaks to the sensibilities of managing partner/owner, Gene Alloway.

Gene and I had a wonderful time talking books on Wednesday, and his boundless enthusiasm for his trade and his shop was evident in each new topic we covered.

I had to ask my usual question of "what is the one thing that my readers should know about" Motte and Bailey, and he had two things to say:

"There’s the business thing and the true thing – the business thing is that we want people to come in to see books they haven’t seen before. The true thing – we’re not done yet – we’re never going to be done – that’s the true thing about the shop. The community changes, the book environment changes, new books come out."

This seems to encompass two themes I heard from Gene consistently - one - he's in the business of wanting his customers to see books they haven't seen before. Books they won't see in new book stores and especially in new, "big box" bookstores. Two, he sees the bookselling (versus bookslogging, but more about that later) business as fluid and ever-changing, and that's one of the things he so dearly loves about being a bookseller.

What does this mean for the customers who wander into his shop? It means this:

Gene knows his community, and his neck of the woods is an area of foodie heaven - the PFC, the Farmers Market and Zingerman's are all within a couple of blocks. He wants to make his shop friendly to browsing - make yourself at home. Respect the books, but enjoy your browse time. Support the Co-op, and support us. Stop by the Co-op, and with the discount, maybe you can afford that extra book you've had your eye on.

When I walk into Gene's shop, the first place I go is here:

This is the place, right next to the entrance, where the collection of cookbooks are housed. A typical experience would be last February, when I went in to ask Gene to display a poster for my son's high school theater group, and I found Italian Festival Foods* by Anne Bianchi, a book I hadn't heard of before, and one that's been absolutely invaluable for my fiction research. The books on this shelf are even harder for me to resist than my favorite espresso con panna.

What does Gene mean when he says the bookstore is "never going to be done"? It's a place that not only changes in terms of stock and possible genre or theme emphasis, but it's a physically changing environment as well, and one that always has wonderful delights for the eye. Here are just a couple of details from Gene's and partner Paul Hare's wonderful collections:

Motte and Bailey grew out of an abandoned board-game business founded by Gene and his friends Paul Hare and John Murphy (who left to go on to law school), and it's now grown into a true book community. Gene's Culinary History book club will be starting this July 15th, there's an ongoing History of Books and Printing club and a history reading group, led by Professor Mike Homel of EMU.

What Gene and Paul sell are not just books, but knowledge - they know most of the books in their stock, and each has his own specialty areas. He or Paul has personally selected the books sitting on the shelves, and they've selected them because they know them to be good. In Gene's case, he's taken the time after years of working as a librarian in places as diverse as the U. of M. Undergraduate Engineering Library and the School of Information, and by learning dumpster diving for rare print editions from Don Kramb, an amateur book scout, and the more refined particulars of the used and rare book business from Jay Platt, of the Westside Book Shop. When you go on Amazon or walk into a Barnes and Noble, you're going to find booksloggers - folks who are good at pushing the NYT bestsellers list, but their knowledge of books may be non-existent.

This is truly what you're buying at Motte and Bailey - a guarantee that this is a good book, a book that will (hopefully) not be undeservedly forgotten.

If you love books, I dare you to wander through Gene's world and not find something totally new, out of your ken, and something that you just know you need to own.

Happy reading!

Motte and Bailey Booksellers, 212 N. 4th Avenue (right next to the People's Food Co-op), 734-669-0451. Hours are Mon -Sat 10-8 p.m., Sunday 11-4 p.m. To learn more about books and the business of bookselling, as well as reading a delightful work-in-progress, Myles of Books, go to Gene's blog: Bookman's Folly.

*( Sales Rank: #799,054 in Books - like I would have found it by browsing Amazon!)


Brian Miller said...

if i am not at home i am usually at the bookstore. when i can find a good local one, all the better. they are filled with such wonderful ideas expressed creatively. also a great gathering place for all kinds of people. thansk for sharing your local one. off to go to mine...

have a great weekend!

Jen said...

Brian, I, too, think of bookstores as homes away from home. There's nothing better than a good book and great, knowledgeable booksellers with whom to discuss those great books!

anno said...

This sounds like a real treasure... one I'm looking forward to exploring. Happy 4th!

Jen said...

Happy 4th to you, too, Anno! I hope you'll be doing something both relaxing and fun.

Anonymous said...

Damn, I like where you live. You have all the great kitschy stuff RIGHT THERE!!!

I do plan to try to read for fun this weekend...hopefuly get to see Three Dog Night too!

Happy 4th!

Oh, and I just referred my Aussie buddy (Kelley at magnetoboldtoo) to your website...she is getting into cooking...thought she'd like your place!

Jen said...

Hey Hotmama - you should take a road trip up here some time - it's only 4 hours. Maybe after next May? (I'd love it before, but I know you'll have your hands full). Thanks for pointing Kelley my way, too. And enjoy Three Dog Night! Wow! They were faves when I was growing up.

Marianne Arkins said...

Wait.. WHOA! I could bring my DOG. Seriously, all over that.

Very cool... lol... I know, I shouldn't focus on that, but she rides with us everywhere, and I love places I can take her in to.

Smart, smart move. Thanks! Wish I was closer.

Luisa Perkins said...

This is part of your plan to get me to move there, isn't it? Believe me, it sounds more tempting every Friday.

Jen said...

Marianne - I think it's a great move. There's also a super-cool shop next door to Motte and Bailey called Dogma and Catmantoo, which sells amazing dog and cat things - food, accessories, etc.

Luisa - yay! Is it working? How could you be so far away from your beloved NYC, though?

Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

I love to look at books in bookstores... That place seems interesting!



Jen said...

Me, too, Rosa. It's one of my favorite pastimes.

Dingo said...

Oh my god, this place sounds fantastic. I need to find places like this in NYC, maybe when you finally get to come for a visit we can make a day of it.

Shan said...

That sounds like a very cool place to browse in.

Jen said...

Dingo, that would be cool. What about that store near Union Square? I keep forgetting the name of it - is it Gotham?

Shan, it truly is.

w said...

I wish there were bookshops like that in Malta. Unfortunately there are but very few and they are not quite as interesting. I like the idea of having the interview with Mr Alloway in your post. Really cool! :)

Dingo said...

You might be thinking of The Strand. The HUGE used book store in Union Square. I've gone there a few times. It is big but it's also impersonal and a bit overpriced. Their annex downtown is a better shopping experience.

Going to the indie book stores will be an experience for me as well. It's something I've always wanted to do but haven't. But we have to, just have to, have lunch at the J. Pierpont Morgan Library Cafe and Art Museum. It's absolutely beautiful.

Jen said...

La Delirante - it's great fun to talk to local business owners and find out why they do what they do. I can think of few things harder than running your own face-to-face business in that way.

Dingo - I've never been there and it sounds lovely! We definitely have to do this... I have to find a way to get some time in NYC.

Acedog said...

Okay, so now I'll have to have coffee at the cool coffee shop you wrote about previously, and then find this bookstore. This is sounding better and better!

glamah16 said...

Even though Im gulity of shopping at the big box book sellers, nothing beats the local cozy bookstore. Could spends hours in them.

Jen said...

Acedog - see, more arguments for coming to A2.

Glamah - ditto - I'd still like to set up our culinary weekend some time! You'd love the cookbook section - there are more shelves (obviously) and some great finds.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

I feel bad so many local/independent books sellers are closing in the States.

I agree with you that you cannot find the same level of knowledge or service at the big box stores. You just can't.

Jen said...

NYC - that's one of the reasons that the buy local movement is so important, I believe. I feel that there's starting to be a real ground swell, and I 'm hoping it will stick.

Jeanie said...

What a great place to go! And I thought I knew about Ann Arbor book stores -- but I think I need to get out more!

Jen said...

Jeanie - this is really a lovely store, and right next to both the co-op and the farmers market, which is a boon for me. I love that block, because Kaleidoscope has fun paperbacks, and Motte and Bailey has wonderful works that I don't find anywhere else. (I also love Aunt Agatha's - do you know that one? It's a couple of blocks down, near Liberty on Fourth).