Growing into books: A conversation with Literati Bookstore's event manager, John Ganiard

Literati Bookstore's Event Manager, John Ganiard (Credit: Ifeyinwa Arinze)

ANN ARBOR – One of my favorite places to visit in Ann Arbor is Literati. I've spent more time in this particular bookstore than just about any other place in the city, and love an excuse to walk in with friends and spot a new book, or books, to add to my collection. It is one of the most inviting bookstores I've ever had the privilege of visiting, with many aspects that leave fellow booklovers wanting to return again and again.

One of those aspects happens to be the many author events the bookstore puts on, led by Literati's events manager John Ganiard. The amount of work Ganiard and his fellow cohorts put into every event is nothing short of stellar, and Ganiard himself is very appreciative of the trust and support Mike and Hilary Gustafson (Literati's owners) have shown him over the past five years. 

I reached out a while back to take a deep dive into Ganiard's process, as learning exactly how he manages to do all he does for the store fascinates me. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Have you always had a love for literature? If so, what was the first book you remember reading that ignited your passion for all things books? 

I don’t think I always have. I see quite a few young readers in Ann Arbor stop in our store on a mission to just absolutely devour books, whose parents are breathlessly insisting that they wait for the library copy to become available, they’re reading so much. I envy those kids, even now, as I had and still have problems finishing books. My parents often took me and my brother to bookstores and libraries, but those are indelible memories as much for the magic of bookstores as for my abiding, near-panicked decision fatigue. I did always crave creative outlets -- writing and drawing, mostly, or otherwise sought out worlds that were captivating places to spend time in. Books were as useful to that end as the hours and hours I spent, say, exploring the little neighborhood I grew up in, which felt as big as a universe then.

When I started working at Literati, I encountered Richard Scarry’s books for the first time since reading them as a child, it triggered a familiar rush of endorphins -- these big, inviting, wondrous, imaginative places to get lost in, story immaterial or even absent. The first book I remember deeply responding to, thinking “Oh, I get why people like literature!” about, was "Moby Dick," when I must have been 16. I guess this makes sense. People intimate that my staff picks don’t exactly have plots -- a more-than-fair assessment. So I grew into books. I feel like I still am growing into books, which are the best way I’ve found to chase some mysteries in life that, when I think about it, I probably don’t really want solved for me anyway. 

What led to you getting the job as events manager at Literati? Had you had prior professional experience in either events or in the book publishing world? Both? 

When Literati opened in 2013, Mike and Hilary, Literati’s owners, had a hand not only in all the day-to-day operations of the store but in all the things they wanted Literati to feature, hosting and personally running author events included. That was a lot for two people, in the first year of running a business. But from our initial bookselling staff, many of whom had actual bookstore experience (I did not), a lot of core roles developed naturally. (Where would the store have been in those early days without its Borders veterans? Way more stressed out!)

I was working as a part-time bookseller, finishing up my MFA at the Helen Zell Writers’ Program up the road, and deciding whether or not to move out of state. I offered to help out with events and it grew from there. I had experience speaking in front of groups of people, that was maybe the start and finish of my pitch at the time. Publishing is another big, wonderful world and I’m still learning about it five years in.

When you were first brought on, what was the main task at hand and did you set any goals for yourself as far as what you wanted to accomplish in the immediate future? In other words, were you charged with creating a certain number of events, and did you establish your own criteria or system for creating a workable schedule of authors/events?

The main task at hand, I think, at the time, was just to have someone else take on and formalize all the work that goes into running events, so they could worry about running a bookstore. Mike and Hilary didn’t hand down quotas for me to hit. I remember writing up general criteria an event should meet, how an event should reflect the mission of the store, shared it with them, and we went from there. I had never called in a purchase order before, almost everything about it was new to me. But as we’ve grown, we’ve collaboratively set significant goals for events, and when they’re met we set new ones. I probably would have quietly chuckled if you would have told me, back when we were running events in our lower level with a borrowed PA, that we’d be doing a concert event with Patti Smith at the DIA within our first five years as a store. But doing an event like that was a goal we certainly, seriously set. And I think we’re still trying to fine-tune what a workable schedule looks like, month-to-month. We’re always trying to fine-tune every part of it. 

How do you decide or determine which books or authors you want to have come to Literati? Does it depend on staff picks, book tours, favorite authors, or all of the above? I'm curious as to what your process is, to put it another way. Do you try to map out the month, or even the year based on book releases?

Here I need to mention that I work with our event coordinator Matthew Flores, and formerly Mairead Small Staid, who is now working on finishing up a writing residency and who I imagine will be reading from her book in our store in the not too distant future. None of the growth of Literati’s events programming would have happened, or be able to continue to happen, without them -- both are calendar masters par excellence, and having two dedicated events staff working side-by-side has allowed Literati to pursue many, many partnerships. 

For the most part, Matthew and I mostly work at the pleasure of the publishers. I hope this doesn’t take too much of the magic away. We get rolling, near-quarterly solicitations from major publishers to request events, which we access through an online book catalog portal made by a company right down the street from us, Above the Treeline. So, in a year we’re writing many little pitches to be a stop on a tour publishers are arranging nationally or regionally, for bookstore events, to school events, to large venue, ticketed events.  Many authors also organize their own tours outside of this system, and so we field lots of requests for events from them. Ultimately, we want to have a robust calendar that represents the interests and reading habits of our customers and our staff. So, yes, we most certainly rely on staff favorites, staff insight, just the vast store of staff book knowledge, generally, when crafting it all. It takes all hands.

There have been some pretty significant events that have originated from bookseller enthusiasm and persistence linking up with customer demand -- as it should be. We also maintain strong relationships with the University of Michigan, and offer roaming bookselling services wherever we’re needed -- on-campus author events, festivals, conventions, you name it. There are standard practices and habits and routines that have grown with time to help us map the future and prepare accordingly, but there just necessarily is the expectation of unknown chaos -- last minute requests, sudden changes, acts of God, that we trust we will manage as they occur. 

What exactly is involved in creating an event for Literati in both its simplest and most complicated form? Feel free to use specific examples, if that's okay. And what I mean by that is, an event in the store versus something at a larger venue. Is the process the same regardless, or does more go into one over the other?

It is a lot of emails, simply and complicatedly. There’s marketing and publicity and copywriting and rolling it all out on time, and then all the very boring but incredibly detailed and important work that goes into the event itself, like making sure you have the right pens and also backup pens should those pens go dry, and fresh batteries for the microphones. In a span of three hours indie bookstore event coordinators are basically oscillating between being roadies, emcees, IT, and customer service. But constant communication unites it all, whether it is a huge event or a small one. Coordinating is communicating, and communicating when you’re a small business working with hundreds of other businesses, is often just ... emailing. I sound like I’m writing a business management book, but this is the unvarnished truth! I’ve grown to appreciate the art of the email. 

Who has been your favorite author to meet over the course of your time at Literati? What about them stood out to you upon meeting them? 

I’ve been fortunate to have warm and pleasant experiences almost uniformly with authors, many of whom have remained incredibly supportive of our store, and generous to the point where it is sometimes emotionally overwhelming. Many, many authors have been booksellers at some point in their trajectory. There is serious kinship between us. 

But here is a local anecdote -- the first time I worked an event for John U. Bacon, I discovered that he has a superpower: He knows probably thousands of people’s full names. He can recall them in the pressure situation of a long signing line following a big speaking engagement. He lives among us. 

Is there a single event you're most proud of? Why? What about the event made it special for you?

I still think back to our in-store event with David Sedaris, in the summer of 2014. That was the first ticketed event we did, and the first big, marquee event. I had been working on events for the store for maybe less than a year. The first memorable book event I went to, in my life, was David Sedaris in Iowa City’s famed Prairie Lights bookstore, as a teenager with my mom. For Mike and Hilary, that was the kind of event you think about doing when you open a bookstore. In many ways I think it proved -- to ourselves -- that we were capable of doing exactly those things you open a bookstore to do. But it was also so joyous. His ever-waxing goodwill and indefatigable personality (he signed books until one in the morning, genuinely engaging with everyone in line) was infectious. I think that one event still fuels what we do, what we collectively think bookstore events can be -- what they can mean to a community. 

Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books? Do you have a particular genre you gravitate toward?

It is always changing! Better to survey what I have been reading: a lot of Carl Phillips’s poetry, and also essays and criticism and short-form writing by folks like Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Pankaj Mishra and Jia Tolentino. The latter two appear regularly in The London Review of Books and The New Yorker, respectively, and I consider all of them appointment reading these days. During peak event seasons, I like to take in essays and short-form writing, and book reviews, any concentrated jolts of good writing. I’m looking forward to diving into Leslie Jamison’s "The Recovering," too, which promises to be the kind of big, uncategorizable book I tend to gravitate toward. She will be reading in store on April 26.

I watched "The Literati Story" and absolutely loved it. Mike mentions that you write the best author introductions at these events. Can you talk about your process in drafting those? Do you have a writing process that you'd care to share? For instance, are you re-writing right up until the moment of the event, or does it all flow naturally?

That was very kind of Mike. It is maybe a given that people generally read to feel a personal relationship with a book, and that that, over many other forms of reading, is just the standard reception of a book in the world -- people’s emotional or personal bond to it. We try to write introductions (I say “we” because other booksellers, and former booksellers, I want to point out, have routinely introduced authors, as well, and have written just amazing, lovely introductions) that explore that bond. As a store we want to be always mindful of the power of that connection, which the book itself is forming between an author and a reader. So that’s maybe kind of a highfalutin explanation. I personally just want them to be a little more than procedural, to be a useful and considerate bridge to the book and the author that you can walk over and then sort of forget about! The author is going to be a lot more exciting; they’re who you came to hear. I’ll usually print out the introduction and then proceed to cross out about 30% of it, thinking, “this is embarrassing, what am I doing, who do I think I am?” I don’t know if that’s more or less effective than any other of the standard revision methods.

We're All About Ann Arbor, so a question I'm fond of ending interviews with is, simply, what does your perfect day in Ann Arbor look like? What would you do? Or, if you prefer, what is it about Ann Arbor that you love? Why?

I’ve literally left Jerusalem Garden, on break from a floor shift, having just placed one of the sample, broken-up baklava pieces that are sometimes available by the register into my mouth, and thought “if I’m ever officially asked about what I love about Ann Arbor, I’m going to say that it is having a little delicious piece of baklava as I head back to work.” I don’t know, I hope that makes sense to a few people. I like most of all the other standard Ann Arbor things just fine, but I like best how nice the baklava tastes as I’m headed back to work.

Anything else you want people to know about you or Literati that they might not otherwise know? 

I just want people to know that they can bring their dogs in to the bookstore, and that we have treats, and that we want to meet all the dogs. Most people know this, of course, so this for everyone else. 

Learn more about Literati and its upcoming events by visiting literatibookstore.com.

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