Curating Literati Cultura: An Interview with Hilary Gustafson

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When Borders Books financially collapsed and was forced to close in 2011, the reading community of downtown Ann Arbor was left in a void. Sure, there was a Barnes and Noble and the cozy long-standing independent bookstore, Nicola’s Books—both in driving distance—but there was nowhere in the heart of walkable downtown where you could ask a staff member for recommendations; where you could linger in a café with the smell of newly printed books wafting with your coffee; where you felt at home in a community of other avid readers. That is, until Hilary and Mike Gustafson, both Michigan natives, moved from Brooklyn to Ann Arbor to build and develop what is now one of the highlights of downtown Ann Arbor: Literati Bookstore. For the past five years, the owners have cultivated shelves of hand-picked independent selections, hosted hundreds of author readings and children storytimes, and have made an impact in the book-loving community of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan. The bookstore has shown that readers don’t just need books to be satisfied, they need book people, too.

Not only are Hilary and Mike savvy entrepreneurs with excellent tastes in books; they also are open to community collaborations. About two years ago, I approached the bookselling couple with a pitch for a book subscription. I was already receiving Powells Books’ Indiespensable subscription, and thought, “Why doesn’t Literati do that, with their own Ann Arborite twist?” The Gustafsons loved the idea and hired me as the Program Consultant. The three of us spent hours researching books, researching packaging options, and even took a walk to the local letterpress studio to chat about possible artistic collaboration opportunities—a creative flair that Literati continues to this day. The end result was Literati Cultura, a collector’s club subscription which sends hand-picked signed first-edition books monthly to customers’ doorsteps. With over 150 members already, the project has proven successful.

In order to celebrate and reflect on the two-year anniversary of Literati Cultura, Hilary Gustafson was gracious enough to take the time to answer our questions about the curating process and the future of the collector’s club.


It has been almost two years since you established the Literati Cultura Collector’s Club. What was your original vision and how has that played out in the two-year span? Any surprises?

At Literati we’ve always strived to have a unique, interesting, and important collection of new books in the store — curating an inventory which blends what we love and what the community loves. We wanted to take this love for curation one step further with a collector’s club called Literati Cultura. It is a monthly subscription service where subscribers receive a delivered, signed first-edition of some of the best, most important, and noteworthy books being published today. Additionally, we wanted to distinguish our first editions club from others around the country by partnering with Wolverine Press, which provides a one-of-a-kind limited edition art piece for each book, each month.

I would say that the biggest surprise has been the out-of-state subscribers. The majority of Cultura members have their books shipped, and many of them live out-of-state. Many subscribers are customers who moved away and wanted to continue to support us, or had heard of the program from friends or relatives. Since we also provide also three, six, and twelve month gift subscriptions, many Ann Arborites buy them for friends or family living out-of-state. It’s been a great way to extend and continue that connection, even if customers move away from Ann Arbor.

I remember working together to come up with a title for the collector’s club. (Does Alliteration ring a bell?) How did you finally land on the name Literati Cultura

We chose “Literati Cultura” as the name for our signed first editions club because we see it as a way for us to connect readers directly to the process of curation and recommendation, and in the process cultivate a unique book culture. We wanted a Latin name to coincide with the Latin literati. We also liked the definition of cultura: to cultivate. It fit with our vision of how people would use the program: to cultivate a special, unique personal library. And also, by extension, helping to cultivate a literary culture broadly by supporting writers and their work.

Why first editions? What do you think makes a first edition collecting club different than any other kind of monthly book subscription? 

First editions are special and unique. Over time, first editions become valuable. It is the closest thing to the author’s original manuscript, before changes or edits take place in future editions. It allows a collectability for the reader. We do a mix of debut authors and well-known award winning authors so that readers can get to know new names in the literary world while also having a collectable item from an established author.

Right, your past book choices have included highly anticipated titles such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am, Michael Chabon’s Moonglow, and Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, as well as fresh indie picks such as History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund and your most recent selection, The Answers by Catherine Lacey. How do you go about picking your book choices? Do you take suggestions, author solicitations, peruse catalogs, use agents, etc.? 

Cultura suggestions come from everywhere, including the places you mention, as well as publisher reps and bookseller recommendations. Every Cultura pick is decided based on timing—we want that month’s Cultura selection to correlate with the book’s release—as well as quality of writing. We really believe in each Cultura selection, meaning we believe in quality of the writing and the narrative, and believe our customers will find the selections interesting, culturally important, and hopefully entertaining.

Accompanied Literati Cultura Selection No. 1 – Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies”

You also include a quote, letterpressed by hand at Ann Arbor’s Wolverine Press, in every Cultura box. They are always so thoughtful and relevant, yet not always directly tied with the monthly pick. Many times, the quotes are from obscure or rarely used sources. With an infinite inventory of available and deserving quotes to choose from, how do you even begin to pinpoint an appropriate quote to fit a specific literary landscape? 

Quote-searching is an arduous, but fun, process. You’re right: There’s seemingly an infinite amount of choices. We determine the quote a number of different ways. We consider the themes of the book and try to find a line that resonates with the book from a source that makes sense in the literary landscape. The process is unique to each book. So they do vary from month to month in terms of source and theme.

For example, with Foer’s Here I Am, we chose a quote from Sholem Aleichem, whose short story “Tevye the Dairyman” influenced the creation of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Aleichem’s work focuses on Jewish life and on characters ability to cope with adversity, using lots of humor. Foer, similarly, focuses on Jewish lives and uses humor to diffuse the difficulties facing his characters. Additionally, the quote “No matter how bad things get, you’ve got to go on living, even if it kills you” also felt oddly timely for many customers, considering the book shipped out a few days after the November election.

Can you tell us more about your relationship with Wolverine Press? What does the letterpress art add to the overall quality and aesthetic of the Cultura package? 

Wolverine Press does a fantastic job with the production of these Cultura quotes. We give them artistic freedom to format and design the custom art piece and they are always so creative in making it look and feel unique and interesting. So far, customers have enjoyed receiving something one-of-a-kind, and some of them even frame each Cultura quote on their walls as art pieces.

What are some of the most memorable responses you’ve received from Cultura subscribers who want to share their book collecting experiences with you?

We’ve had quite a few subscribers purchase both for themselves and then also for a friend or family member. Often that person lives in a different part of the country. They use it as a way to connect with a son, daughter, mother, aunt, or friend. I love the idea that it can be a way for people to connect not just with literature, but also through literature to create bonds with those in their lives.

We hear not only from subscribers, but often from the authors themselves. I received a handwritten note from Karan Mahajan, author of Association of Small Bombs (March 2016), thanking us for helping his book find readers. I felt so honored to be able to share his book and watch the rise of the accolades the book received at the end of the year. Association of Small Bombs was a finalist for the National Book Award and was chosen as one of the top five fiction books of the year by the New York Times.

Reflecting on the past two years, what part of the journey (of creating the Cultura first editions club) has been most rewarding for you? 

The collaborative nature of the journey has been so fun. We collaborate with the publisher and author, with Wolverine Press, and with other booksellers. Literati Cultura truly represents the best version of our bookstore: collaborative, supportive of great works of literature, and creative at its core.

What goals would you like to see achieved in Year 3 of Literati Cultura?

We’ve so enjoyed this process already—selecting books, working with publishers, authors, Wolverine Press, and assembling these unique collections. Our goal is simply to keep the program going, grow our subscriber base, and continue to provide signed first editions of the books we believe in.


Image: Literati Bookstore

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