The Beat Goes On
Oak Park independent bookstore owners have been keeping the literary faith for more than 30 years
Basic survival alone qualifies as success for independent retailers these days, let alone those who deal in that fading entity known as a printed book. Perhaps the secret to the Book Beat’s longevity is that its founders stayed true to their interests.
“We can’t be the store for everyone,” co-owner Cary Loren says. “We just do the things we enjoy.”
What they like doing includes helping out in the community. Loren and his wife, Colleen Kammer, have operated the Oak Park store for more than 30 years, keeping the literary faith in a 3,500-square-foot labyrinth of floor-to-ceiling books, greeting cards, novelties, and a healthy dose of works by local artists and photographers. Beyond its bookcases, its presence is felt at libraries and schools that benefit from the owners’ community spirit.
No real secret. It’s what they enjoy and wanted to do from the beginning.
Finding the Beat
The Book Beat didn’t stand out as such a rarity when it opened in 1982, a time when Kammer says the city boasted a positively thriving literary scene.
“Detroit was a top 10 book market back in the ’70s and ’80s,” she says. “[Local morning talk show] Kelly & Company always had authors on and flew them in. We had so many independent bookstores before the giant, big-box stores decimated everyone.”
The store took on the characteristics of its owners, homegrown students of art and literature. Loren’s passions for photography and music (he was in alt-rock group Destroy All Monsters), and Kammer’s love of children’s books inspired the store’s specialties. Competition came often, first from chain stores and mass-market outlets, then from online shopping.
“It’s not a great business to be in,” Loren admits. “We’ve had an uptick recently, but we’re below what we were in the 1990s. It would be harder to close down when there are fewer options left.”
Maybe the secret to survival success was that the ambition was clear from the beginning.
“We never thought of it as a long-term career,” Loren says. “We thought it would be a place that could support [ourselves] and serve the area.”
Nearly three years ago, the Gesu Catholic School found itself — hardly unique — in need of books, funds, and friends. The institution found all three at the Book Beat, which last year orchestrated the second annual “Book Raiser” benefit for the school.
“Colleen adopted us,” says Gesu Principal Christa Laurin. “She’s found funding but also brought in authors for the children to meet.” The “book raiser” model combines donated books with part of the store’s profits on a given day.
Projects like that factor heavily in the Book Beat’s reputation beyond Michigan, including the 2012 Pannell Award for Outstanding Children’s Section from the Women’s National Book Association.
Kammer says her love — and by all reports encyclopedic knowledge of — children’s literature is, in part, a way of paying it forward. “You have to create new readers, children who want to be adult readers,” says Kammer. “There are generations of people who come in, excited to buy books for their grandchildren [where] they went when they were kids.”
Repeating the Beat
Loren and Kammer continue doing what they enjoy. Loren, a 2013 Kresge Arts Fellow, is working on a history of the Detroit Artists Workshop and hosts a monthly world literature discussion group. He’s been doing it since “before Oprah had her book club,” and considers it a service that can’t be bought online.
“People are social beings; we come together in groups,” Loren says. “That’s how music and art happens. [Internet sales] keep people from meeting each other; it steals from the community.”
Kammer says plans include a music-and-book event this summer, similar to previous “Midnight Madness” events and in the tradition of the celebration held in 2012 for the store’s 30th anniversary: That blowout featured hometown music and “local” authors including the late, great Elmore Leonard, and Kammer has high hopes for the year ahead.
“We turn 33 this year,” Kammer says. “Like ‘33 1/3’ [albums]. Cary’s a musician, and we have the record store [Street Music Records] next door, so on Friday evenings we could have authors inside and live music outside. It sounds kind of nutty, but I believe in the idea.”
Mostly it sounds like something the Book Beat’s owners enjoy, a success by any definition.
26010 Greenfield Ave.,Oak Park; 248-968-1190. 10 a.m. - 8 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m. - 7 p.m. Sat., and 12 - 5 p.m. Sun. email@example.com.