In 1982, Cary Loren and his wife, Colleen Kammer, opened Book Beat in Oak Park’s Lincoln Shopping Center. Today — nearly forty years later — the store remains at the heart of Metro Detroit’s literary community.
From the outside, one would never suspect the universe that exists within their walls. Upon entering the store, there is an immediate sense of coziness amidst the organized chaos. Books teeming from shelves and littering tabletops. An extensive collection of hand drums and African art filling every unoccupied crevice. That old book smell your grandmother used to reference so endearingly? It may as well be pumping through the ventilation. Simply existing in the space provides an intangible feeling of fullness – as if the knowledge available within the texts can somehow be absorbed subcutaneously.
There aren’t many places like it anymore. In the era of e-readers and one-click shopping, there is no denying that family-owned bookstores are struggling at the hands of big business and technological development.
But despite the immense challenges of competing with corporate giants, further complicated by the effects of COVID-19, Book Beat remains staunchly committed not only to its own success, but the value of books in contemporary life.
In an effort to adapt to the ever-expanding digital market, Book Beat has partnered with Bookshop.org – an online bookstore with a mission to financially support local, independent booksellers.
With Bookshop, customers can purchase books online with 100% of the profit going to the local bookstore of their choice. According to Loren, the decision to sign up just a month prior to the pandemic has proven critical to the store’s survival.
“We joined [Bookshop] early and that really helped save us. It’s really easy to use,” Loren said. “You can literally order any book that you’d find on Amazon on there.”
Along with this new partnership, Book Beat has increased their efforts to connect to customers in new ways.
“One thing that we do now is constant emailing. You have to have a digital connection to your customers today. They may not be from Detroit. Or they may be Detroiters that live somewhere else, but they have roots here, and they want to keep supporting us.”
Thanks to their loyal customer base, combined with a unique ability to adapt, Loren expects his shop to weather the storm that was 2020. But, like the rest of us, he’s missing the way things used to be, and the community that makes the hard work worthwhile.
“Community outreach is our big thing,” he explained. “Having authors speak, bringing them to schools – we do that all the time, but COVID has changed the whole equation. COVID goes against what bookstores are as community centers – where people hang out, meet other people and spend time browsing.”
Despite very real challenges, Book Beat forges ahead with the optimism and tenacity of our own literary heroes, facing obstacles as they come, fighting to preserve an institution that – without question – makes the world a better place.
“I really believe books are the greatest gift in the world. When you give a book to someone, it’s really a part of yourself you’re giving them. It’s unlike any other commodity.”