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Posted on Fri, Jul 12, 2013 : 1:58 p.m.

Karl Pohrt, longtime owner of Shaman Drum Bookshop, remembered as community stalwart

By Janet Miller

Editor's note: The name of Karl Pohrt's wife, Dianne, has been corrected.

Ann Arbor has lost one of its literary icons and gentle souls.

Karl Pohrt - longtime owner of Shaman Drum Bookshop on South State Street, community stalwart, bridger of chasms and expert on the literature of the Beat generation - died Wednesday at his Ann Arbor home. He was 65 and had battled a rare form of thyroid cancer.


Karl Pohrt

While Pohrt was most visible as the owner of Shaman Drum for nearly 30 years before it closed in 2009, his interests and his work ran deep:

He was one of the first to promote town-gown partnerships between the city and the University of Michigan. He was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. U-M has a named chair in his honor. He counted filmmaker Michael Moore, both from Flint, as a friend. He hosted Beat poet Allen Ginsberg at his store. He called those around him brother and sister.

But he also was a businessman: He was a champion of small business and downtown density and he left a broad mark locally, said State Street Area Association executive director Tom Heywood, who arrived in Ann Arbor in 1997 as Pohrt was about to become his board’s chair. It was Pohrt who pushed for the idea of partnering with U-M to study the State Street area streetscape options, an idea that opened the door for increased town-gown relations. “Until then, there was not a lot of cooperation,” Heywood said. “Fifteen years later that paid off with the construction of North Quad.”

While he was an unapologetic liberal, Pohrt wasn’t threatened by those who thought differently, said Heywood, who counts himself as much more conservative. “Hiring me for Ann Arbor was counter intuitive,” Heywood said. “Karl had an incredible sense of irony. He thought outside of the box. That was part of his genius…He was an amazing human being, not just an amazing member of our community.”

He also was a man with a big heart, said Susan Pollay, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority. Pohrt, a DDA member for eight years, was running a meeting when a member who had just returned from maternity leave came with her baby. “The baby sat on Karl’s lap for the whole time,” Pollay said. “That was a Karl moment: leadership and humanity.”

While he was a kind man, he had a wicked sense of humor, Pollay said. He ran a highbrow bookstore, but he also loved bad movies, she said. “The worse the movie, the better.”

“…I asked her if her meditation practice was helpful in dealing with her illness. She smiled and told me she used to be a Zen Buddhist but now she was a Daoist. ‘Zen students meditate, but Daoists take naps,’ she said. We both laughed.” - April 25, 2013 entry from Pohrt’s blog,

Pohrt also had a deep intellect and was a scholar on literature from the Beat Generation and a friend of Beat poet Gary Snyder. That’s what helped bring them together, said Arthur Nusbaum, a close friend and sometimes business partner. They traveled to the European Beat Studies Network conference in the Netherlands last fall. “Two dharma bums, finger poppin’ angels of desolation, real cool daddys, materialize out of the void into the harsh Amsterdam morning. Ahh, not really. Who am I trying to kid? It would be more accurate to describe us as two late middle-aged Americans, blurry-eyed and disheveled, stumbling into Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.” - Sept. 4, 2012 blog entry.


Karl Pohrt, right, pictured in 2008 in the Shaman Drum Bookshop with Bob Hart, the head of research and development for the store at the time. The store closed in 2009.

Ann Arbor News file photo

Pohrt was well read and well rounded, Nusbaum said. “There was nothing he didn’t know about. He had read every book you had read. He knew about eastern religion and philosophy. I gained so much from our friendship.”

“In spite of the wise advice of the Third Ch’an Patriarch Seng-Ts’an (The Way is easy/for those who have no preferences), I was enormously pleased.” Writing in his April 25, 2013 blog.

Memorial services will be held for friends and family at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, 3257 Lohr Road. He is survived by his wife, Dianne, two daughters and three grandchildren.

“A few days ago I had a seizure that the doctors discovered was due to three small brain tumors. I decided to end this blog--to exit the Hotel Karma (at least for the time being)--while I'm still in sound body and mind. I plan on being in sound body and mind for a while yet, but you never know.” - May 10, 2013 blog entry.

Janet Miller is a freelance reporter. Contact the news desk at


Elwood Reid

Thu, Jul 18, 2013 : 1:56 p.m.

Karl's passing leaves a hole in my heart. His store and presence made me a writer. Always ready with a recommendation and a smile. Here I was this big ex-jock, bouncer, carpenter and later a student looking for a place to find other with that bookish gleam in their eyes. I found it at Shaman Drum and can't count the times I walked through that cherry wood door to be greeted by Karl who knew my taste in literature and would point out a book I might like. More importantly he pushed writers and poets on me I would never have found myself. He will be missed. elwood

Donna Paz Kaufman

Sun, Jul 14, 2013 : 2:38 p.m.

As a member of the book industry, I'd like to say that Karl was also nationally known and respected for his love of literature, leadership, and for bringing writers and readers together. When we sponsored a workshop in Ann Arbor for people thinking of opening a bookstore, we asked Karl to be our bookstore host. He shared his decades of wisdom on small business and retail book selling and gave us a personal tour of Shaman Drum. It was wonderful to bring the workshop to Michigan, my home state, and have someone like Karl be the model of how life and work can bring such satisfaction to our lives. To Karl's family, know that many of us in the book industry share your loss, but are so happy to have had someone like Karl in our lives.

perfectly lubricated weather vane

Sat, Jul 13, 2013 : 10:15 p.m.

Ed Vielmetti compiled some remembrances from Publisher's Weekly, Media Bistro, and other sites:

Vivienne Armentrout

Sat, Jul 13, 2013 : 8:23 p.m.

This is a very sweet and sensitive obituary, but it fails to embrace the full measure of Karl Pohrt's place at the center of Ann Arbor's literary and creative life. I hope that there will be a more complete obituary in some publication before long. Here is a remembrance from the Ann Arbor Chronicle: I am certainly not qualified to write one, but I hope that someone will. I scarcely knew him personally (he probably would not have recognized my face), but I was very aware of his and Shaman Drum's influence. He was the major instigator and supporter of the Ann Arbor Book Festival, which apparently still exists ( but which was a really, really big deal for a couple of years, extending into the UM campus and many other sites. I actually displayed a book at one of them. That distinctive artwork and logo of Shaman Drum was everywhere, since he was generous in advertising and sponsoring small publishers. The bookstore was a focal point of the State Street area, lending it both style (that wooden fa├žade) and intellectual heft. The book selection was somewhat limited but distinctive (I purchased a couple of books that might have been difficult to find elsewhere just months before it closed). The staff were exceptionally knowledgeable. And yet - it closed. I don't know the story. But it is a strong example of how institutions must be nurtured. We can't just assume that because a store, an association, a community event seem to have become part of the fabric of our existence, that they will go on forever. We must support them. Karl Pohrt was a fortunate man. He meant a lot to many people, and to our community. Best wishes to those near to him whom he left behind.


Sat, Jul 13, 2013 : 6:52 p.m.

Dearest Karl I am so glad that we knew each other, all-be-it virtually. I cherish the propinquity we discovered: Oaxaca (I wish I could have driven with you from Michigan to Oaxaca), cinema (particularly Chris Marker), bookshops the wonders of literature, environmental issues and our proposed 'Messengers' project. You lead such a rich life and so many of us are forever grateful to have known you and to have shared so much with you. I often chance on a book and think 'must tell Karl about this'. I still go into bookshops and will still, as ever, think of you. Rex Pyke (Scotland)

Tom Morson

Sat, Jul 13, 2013 : 4:42 p.m.

My condolences to Karl's family and close friends. In the 1980's Karl and I were part of a men's group as well as a Spirituality Group and I enjoyed his quick wit, viewpoints, and efforts to always keep the "process" of being together intact while sometimes vociferously in disagreement. Thank you Karl for your many contributions as a colleague, collaborator and citizen.


Sat, Jul 13, 2013 : 11:40 a.m.

Very sad, Karl was a great person.

Paul Peterson

Fri, Jul 12, 2013 : 10:05 p.m.

Karl was a wonderful presence in Ann Arbor and a great representative of Flint and the UM-Flint. We will miss him.


Fri, Jul 12, 2013 : 9:59 p.m.

"He counted filmmaker Michael Moore, both from Flint, as a friend." I know MM is a large fellow, but he's not two people.


Sat, Jul 13, 2013 : 2:40 a.m.

Both refers to both Michael and Karl. That's two people.

Siri Gottlieb

Fri, Jul 12, 2013 : 9:10 p.m.

Taken too soon. Forty years ago, we used to talk philosophy and socialist theory in high school in Flint. Thank you for expanding my vision, Karl. You will be greatly missed.

Steve Hendel

Fri, Jul 12, 2013 : 8:47 p.m.

The Dinner Group will miss you, Karl.....


Fri, Jul 12, 2013 : 8:04 p.m.

Godspeed, Mr. Pohrt.

Jim Hynes

Fri, Jul 12, 2013 : 7:48 p.m.

Ms. Miller: This is a really lovely obituary. You really captured Karl.

Paula Gardner

Fri, Jul 12, 2013 : 7:43 p.m.

I met Karl several years ago when I hosted a roundtable discussion about independent retailers in Ann Arbor. I was so impressed with his thoughtfulness, insight and dedication. All of those qualities came out while talking about downtown - and his store.


Fri, Jul 12, 2013 : 7:42 p.m.

We love you Karl and will miss you in the 'hood. From your State Street Area brothers and sisters.

Lynn Liston

Fri, Jul 12, 2013 : 7:26 p.m.

A sad loss for the community and especially for his family.


Fri, Jul 12, 2013 : 7:11 p.m.

Shaman Drum was a great bookstore that my wife and I frequented on many occasions. We knew Karl quite well and wish his family much sympathy at this time loss.


Fri, Jul 12, 2013 : 7:09 p.m.

Don't know if my grandchildren will have bookstores to visit, so I will tell them about Shaman Drum. And I'll continue to shop at Nicola's, Literati, Crazy Wisdom, and Common Language. Enjoy the hereafter Karl.

Ed Kimball

Fri, Jul 12, 2013 : 9:57 p.m.

Don't forget Dawn Treader. There will be used books around for a long time.


Fri, Jul 12, 2013 : 6:59 p.m.

RIP Karl. You did a good job while you were here.

Lauren Erickson

Fri, Jul 12, 2013 : 6:36 p.m.

Shaman Drum Bookshop was a great bookstore. I remember meeting Allen Ginsberg and many other fantastically talented authors at at book signings.

Leah Gunn

Fri, Jul 12, 2013 : 6:28 p.m.

As a member of the DDA Board, Karl was very dedicated to creating affordable housing, and was a leader, as Chair of the DDA Housing Committee, in cooperating with local non-profits, most notably Avalon, to create housing for low income residents. He was also supportive of human services. The community has lost a wonderful leader.

James Toy

Fri, Jul 12, 2013 : 6:28 p.m.

Thank you Karl--gentle friend, mentor, scholar, advocate for justice--! Heartfelt sympathy to Karl's family and friends and thanks to Karl's many caregivers. "Rest eternal grant them after weary fight; shed on them the radiance of thy heavenly light. lead them onward, upward, to the holy place, where thy saints made perfect gaze upon thy face."


Sat, Jul 13, 2013 : 12:30 p.m.

I certainly hope that the down vote was a mistake! I can't imagine what Karl could have done to deserve that from this post. R.I.P Karl. You have shown a great deal of character throughout your life both in business and in humanity.