Greg Lenhoff, co-owner of Leopold’s Books, didn’t always have plans to open a bookstore in Detroit. But the path he took, he says, was very much in line with some other people around here. He left Michigan for sometime, living stints in St. Louis, New York, and Chicago. But, curiously enough, he told me that “I became more and more obsessed with Detroit while I was gone.”
After leaving grad school, he came back. He found himself missing the little bookstores he would frequent in other cities, and was struck with the idea to open his own. He met a community of small business owners in Detroit (from City Bird http://www.ilovecitybird.com/, Bureau of Urban Living http://www.bureauliving.com/, their neighboring Good Girls go to Paris Crepes http://www.goodgirlsgotopariscrepes.com/, and others) who turned out to be wonderfully supportive in this venture.
“The bones of the place are inspirational,” Lenhoff says of the city.
Still, this didn’t happen without acute concern. Opening a bookstore in 2009, in Detroit, sounds like the utmost of uphill battles. With the climbing popularity of the e-readers like the Kindle, bookstores across the country are struggling. Lenhoff admits that Detroit doesn’t seem like a particularly literary city to the casual observer. But regardless of these challenges, they’ve been running a successful business for a year and a half. How is this happening?
Leopold’s offers something unique. Lenhoff insists that his competition with sites like Amazon.com is actually pretty minimal, because they sell books in a different way: the shop is small, with a meticulously curated selection of books. With larger inventories, it’s a bit overwhelming to graze over unfamiliar works, but Leopold’s setup is inherently browseable and focused.
In this way, Leopold’s seems to pick up where huge corporate and web-based book sellers lack. The times we live in confront us with an onslaught of information, and much less time to process it all. A little less than a century ago, modernist poet Ezra Pound insisted “The weeder is supremely needed if the garden of muses is to persist as a garden.” I think it’s more true today than it was when he wrote it. The selective stocking process, I believe, is exactly what allows the store to flourish.
So what can you expect to find there? “Honestly, I tend to carry books that I just enjoy myself. I tend to like challenging books in the way of William S. Burroughs, John Barth, and Paul Auster,” he explains. Among experimental novels, you can also find import fashion, design, and architectural magazines, graphic novels, comics, local zines, poetry and short stories, and more. “But these categories are fluid to me,” Lenhoff says, “I see little difference between a novel and comic,” Some books and magazines even find themselves in Leopold’s upon suggestions from patrons.
For Noel Night this Saturday, Leopold’s is showing the Star Wars Holiday Special. It was aired on television only once in the late 70’s and George Lucas immediately disowned it. It’s never been officially released on video either, so be sure to go check it out.