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Posted on Fri, Dec 4, 2009 : 5:15 a.m.

Ann Arbor's Common Language Bookstore struggles to survive

By Janet Miller

Another independent Ann Arbor bookstore is close to collapse.

Common Language Bookstore, serving the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) community since 1991 and located at 317 Braun Court, has made a life-or-death appeal to the community, said co-owner Keith Orr, who, along with Martin Contreras, also owns Common Language and the Aut Bar club.

A fundraising Book-a-Palooza to support Common Language will be held this weekend at the bookstore to coincide with the downtown Midnight Madness event. Some 5,000 used books covering a wide variety of topics have been donated and will be sold in a storefront across from the bookstore Dec. 4-6.


Keith Orr, co-owner of Common Language Bookstore. The store is running a Book-a-Palooza sale starting Friday, to help raise funds to keep the store in business.

Melanie Maxwell |

Common Language is not alone. Shaman Drum closed June 30 after 29 years in Ann Arbor. 

Common Language has been stung by on-line book sales, especially by, Orr said. Michigan’s weak economy has been another nail in the coffin and sales at Common Language began to fall in 2004. 


Book-a-Palooza will be held from 1 p.m. - midnight Dec. 4 when books will cost $3 for hardcover and $1 for paperback. It will also be held from 10 a.m. - 8 p.m. Dec. 5 (hardcover will be $2 and paperback 50-cents) and from 1-7 p.m. Dec. 6 (a bag of books will be $5). Book-a-Palooza will be held across from Common Language inside of Shout, 325 Braun Court.

LGBT bookstores have been shuttered around the country, including the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in Greenwich Village, the nation’s first LGBT bookstore. It closed earlier this year. There are no longer LGBT bookstores in such big cities as New York, Baltimore and Houston, Orr said. He estimates there are only about 50 LGBT books stores left in the U.S.

“Borders and Barnes and Nobles are not our competition,” Orr said. “They serve different functions than we do. We have 7,500 books on our shelves and I’d be surprised if they have more than 100-200 (LGBT) books. Our survival is threatened by Amazon.”

But the Ann Arbor store is hanging on, at least for a while.

“Martin (Contreras) said we’re going to find a way to stay open, even if we’re the last one standing,” Orr said. So far, that has meant supporting Common Language with funds from the Aut Bar club along with personal savings, Orr said. But that can’t last forever. Orr and Contreras have owned Common Language since 2003.

When Orr made an appeal to the community last summer for support, sales saw a healthy rise for 6 to 8 weeks, but have leveled off and they are still waiting for the holiday bump. Orr said they made the decision in the summer to stay open at least through the fall semester textbook season. Sales were strong enough to buy Common Language a couple more months, he said. They will stay alive at least through the winter semester textbook season, and access sales after that.

While independent bookstores are closing around the nation, it’s especially hard for the LGBT niche.

“It’s a little more painful because (LGBT) bookstores often serve as a community center,” Orr said.

While chain bookstores carry a handful of LGBT titles, the feeling of safety and the level of service is not the same, Orr said.

“LGBT bookstores are a safe space for people to explore their sexuality and gender issues. That’s what’s in danger of being lost."


Brian M.

Mon, Dec 14, 2009 : 9:11 a.m.

@rusty shackelford Absolutely agree with this. That niche of critical theory, philosophy, and small poetry has an audience in Ann Arbor and isn't being served right now unless it happens to be carried at one of the used book stores.

The Picker

Mon, Dec 7, 2009 : 9:46 p.m.

Jill, By your definition,this enterprise would be known as a hobby! To be a business, they would need to supply something people are willing to pay for, and pay enough to keep the lights on!

Inspector 57

Mon, Dec 7, 2009 : 1:16 a.m.

"Isn't this a for-profit business? It seems kinda strange to have people donate goods to a fundraiser for a for-profit business." "Face the music that in the age of Amazon, book stores are passe." You guys might want to re-read the article. Take your time. Sound out the hard words. One of the article's main points is that Common Language is NOT just a for-profit enterprise. It also strives to provide a safe space in which LGBTQ people can come in and learn/relax/buy/discuss/be comfortable. Keith's and Martin's motivation for keeping the bookshop open is more about providing a community service than it is about making money. They've demonstrated that for months, simply by not shutting down the store and using its space to accomodate their bustling restaurant business. Good for them for thinking of non-conventional ways to keep this public-service institution viable. Good for the community for its support of this fund-raiser.

Jill Damon

Sat, Dec 5, 2009 : 10:03 p.m.

Just because a business is not officially a non-profit doesn't mean that it makes a profit. Many small businesses are barely profitable, or not at all, and keep going because they are passionate about what they do. Their supporters know that they provide something unique, valuable, and often irreplaceable to the community. I urge everyone who cares about preserving independent, locally owned businesses like Common Language, Shaman Drum and soooo many others to go to the Think Local First website and learn about the 3/50 plan. It's about making a personal commitment to spend at least $50. at the 3 locally owned businesses you would most miss if they were gone. TARP funds and MI Small Business loans are virtually unavailable for existing small businesses. The fundraiser seems like a creative way for Common Language to get back on their feet. I wish them all the best.

Mike D.

Fri, Dec 4, 2009 : 12:32 p.m.

@Bryan123: I think it's pretty clean that this hasn't been a "for-profit" business for many years. Keith and Martin have been keeping it afloat because they think it's the right thing for the community. Now they are asking for help. I plan on going in to do some holiday shopping.


Fri, Dec 4, 2009 : 10:07 a.m.

What about applying for some TARP funds? Then the President will dictate how much money the executives can be paid.


Fri, Dec 4, 2009 : 8 a.m.

Isn't this a for-profit business? It seems kinda strange to have people donate goods to a fundraiser for a for-profit business. I think usually a book store selling used books would just be considered normal business rather than a "fundraiser". I'm certainly all for shopping at locally owned businesses, but the fundraiser just seems like an odd concept to me. Hopefully the bookstore offers something which Amazon can't, and it's something enough people think is valuable, since it's always sad to see these boutique businesses go away.

Maggi Idzikowski

Thu, Dec 3, 2009 : 8:10 p.m.

Thank you for alerting us to this -- I miss stopping at Common Language now that it is off the track (used to stop in all the time when it was on 4th) and would hate to see it go.

Mary Bilyeu

Thu, Dec 3, 2009 : 4:41 p.m.

I will happily do some holiday shopping at Book-a-Palooza! I am still mourning the loss of Shaman Drum, and we can't have another local bookstore closing -- each contributes to our community and helps to make Ann Arbor special....