Karl Pohrt was the founder of Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor MI and a friend. He passed away on July 10 after losing a battle with cancer. Brain tumors made it impossible to continue blogging as of May of this year. The academic and broader community of Ann Arbor, which is home to the University of Michigan, mourn the loss. He was 65 years old and leaves his wife Dianne, daughters Tanya and Tasha, and three grandchildren as survivors. His brothers, Richard and Thomas, honor his memory. Brother Tom is a renowned author and illustrator in his own right.
Karl was renowned not only for his learning and business acumen, but also his kindness and vision. He served several terms as president of the American Booksellers Association, while in Ann Arbor he served on the boards of the Downtown Development Authority and the State Street Association for many years. Friends knew him for his gentle nature, which was peppered by a self-deprecating and acerbic wit.
His exequies were handled by the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Ann Arbor.
On May 10, he wrote in his well-regarded blog:
“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.”
Karl bought out a previous book store called Paidea back in 1980, having come from his native Flint MI where he had worked as an instructor at the University of Michigan-Flint. Shaman Drum Bookshop was a magnet for anyone interested in subjects ranging from anthropology, comparative religion, philosophy, to university textbooks. His customers could rely on his good humor and his extensive knowledge, which added to a congenial and high brow atmosphere.
Already well-regarded in Michigan and the wider Midwest, Shaman Drum rose to national prominence as an independent book store that rode the tiger of online bookselling. Karl was able to rely on selling textbooks to support a broad literary list and explore innovative projects. He rode the crest of a technological wave that has meant the discarding of books - an act that Karl would only regard as a betrayal - and book stores as cultural artifacts. That is a poverty.
Shaman Drum reached a crisis point during the wider economic crisis. In February 2009, Karl wrote an open letter to the community, posted in the Ann Arbor Chronicle:
"For many booksellers -- certainly including me -- this is our darkest hour. I know this sounds melodramatic, but that’s the way it feels to me in the middle of the night when I’m trying to figure out how I can possibly make this work," he wrote. "If I can’t figure this out, the most realistic and responsible thing I can do is shut the store down and move on."
"The question then becomes: What is the next version of a bookstore?," he continued. "This is something worth thinking about carefully. Like you, I want to live in a community that has many good bookshops. But then I’ve been spoiled living in Ann Arbor."
After 29 years, Shaman Drum shut its doors for the last time in June 2009.
Karl had many accomplishments as a bookseller, compulsive reader, and a publisher as well. At Shaman Drum, Karl also assembled a knowledgeable and helpful group of employees that distinguished his store. He was a friend of writers too, including Gary Snyder and Barry Lopez. Beat poet Allen Ginsburg also once graced Karl's store.
Karl had long been a Buddhist and had a gentle and welcoming aspect that remains fixed in my mind as I recall our occasional meetings during my peripatetic life. He exhibited a charm and ease that were both arresting and memorable. Ann Arbor, and I, have lost a treasure.
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