Karl Pohrt, the founder of Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor, Mich., died Wednesday. The 65-year-old was suffering from cancer; tumors in his brain compelled him to stop blogging in May.
Shaman Drum was a legendary independent bookstore -- one of a few, like Powell's, able to rise to national prominence during the advent of online bookselling. Located near the University of Michigan, it was able to use its brisk trade in college textbooks to support a broad literary list and explore innovative projects.
Eventually, however, the textbook business went online as well, and with the economy suffering through the recession, Shaman Drum reached a crisis point. In February 2009, Pohrt wrote an open letter to the community, posted in the Ann Arbor Chronicle:
"For many booksellers -- certainly including me -- this is our darkest hour. I know this sounds melodramatic, but that’s the way it feels to me in the middle of the night when I’m trying to figure out how I can possibly make this work," he wrote. "If I can’t figure this out, the most realistic and responsible thing I can do is shut the store down and move on."
"The question then becomes: What is the next version of a bookstore?," he continued. "This is something worth thinking about carefully. Like you, I want to live in a community that has many good bookshops. But then I’ve been spoiled living in Ann Arbor."
After 29 years, Shaman Drum shut its doors for the last time in June 2009.
Nevertheless, Pohrt was much admired. “Karl Pohrt was a true bookman: a bookseller, compulsive reader, and a publisher as well. He had a very strong sense of the material and spiritual value of the reading experience. He was a man with a mission and an unshakable devotion to the idea that books could transform human beings and the world for the better,” Bruce Joshua Miller of Miller Trade Marketing in Chicago told Publishers Weekly.
"Karl was one of the greatest managers ever. He assembled an amazing crew of employees. .." Open Letter's Chad Post wrote at Three Percent. He continued, "Karl was one of the most well-adjusted people I’ve ever met. A long time Buddhist and friend of Gary Snyder, he exuded a certain calm and ease with the world that touched everyone who ever met him."