To make up for yesterday’s Ypsi Exit Interview, which seems to have upset a few folks, here’s another in my series of Ypsi Immigration Interviews. I hope you enjoy it.
MARK: What’s your name, and what is it that you do?
LEE: My name is Lee Azus. I owned a bookstore for 15 years in San Francisco. I moved to Ypsilanti in January, 2011 and closed the store down a week before leaving San Francisco. What I am currently doing, besides auditing a French grammar class and organizing the book section at a local charity shop, is 1) reading all the books I couldn’t read these past years; 2) bicycling all over Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor; 3) exploring Detroit; and 4) learning to experience the ecology of this new, strange region.
MARK: Can you tell us a little about the store you left behind in San Francisco?
LEE: I owned and ran a bookstore specializing in travel. Besides guidebooks, we carried international fiction, international history, politics, architecture, maps, gear and globes. The store was on a triangular corner, so was sort of slice-of-pie shaped. There were 12 foot windows along two sides, which were beautiful, although a frequent target for acid etching or a random brick. We hosted a lot of authors over the years and had a loyal following. But things changed very quickly due to the economy, the weak dollar and the smart phone apps. The last two years were not fun.
MARK: Is it possible that there are other entrepreneurial ventures in your future, perhaps here in Ypsilanti?
LEE: Every city needs a good baker and a good coffee roaster. I would have added ‘and good bookstore’ but that’s still a sensitive issue. Luckily Ypsi has first rate coffee beans and bread. So, those businesses are well covered here. I have absolutely no desire to wade into another entrepreneurial venture.
MARK: What brought you to Ypsilanti? Would I be correct in assuming that you’re here because of EMU?
LEE: I am here because my boyfriend of 21 years was offered a terrific job at Eastern Michigan University. (I don’t like the word ‘partner’, though we are legally domesticated partners under California law, which turns out to be less than meaningless in Michigan.)
MARK: As you may know, we recently lost a family of Ypsilantians to the San Francisco area. Do you have any advice for them?
LEE: I hadn’t heard about a family of Ypsilantians moving to San Francisco, so hesitate to give advice. Having just returned from a summer back in San Francisco, I can say that the pace is much quicker there, which is a blessing and a curse. There is so much going on culturally, gastronomically, politically. It is exciting yet can be exhausting. The other bit of advice is to be sure to pick the wild blackberries on Bernal Hill. They’re still in abundance until October. Oh, and Day of the Dead, November 2nd on 24th Street and Garfield Park.
MARK: Were you at all apprehensive about moving here? And, what do you think of Ypsilanti thus far, now that you’re living here?
LEE: I have only lived in metropolitan areas with no less than 4 million people, so Ypsilanti is a big change. I was completely apprehensive about moving here. I love San Francisco. I have legal rights as a gay person in California that the Michigan Supreme Court aren’t about to recognize any time soon. I found the lack of recognition as a couple not only insulting, but a good reason to fear what Michigan would be like. Plus, those weird militia guys are from South East Michigan. So, I was not overly optimistic about life here. We came to Ypsilanti for four days in May 2010 to look for housing. It was my first visit to Michigan. Within the first hour, I was walking on Cross Street to dinner at the Sidetrack. I liked Sidetrack. The next morning we walked along the Huron River, through the parks. I loved the river. Then we ate the most unusual baked french toast at Beezy’s. I liked Beezy’s. We looked at lots of funky old apartments that had a lot of charm. I was happy to see that Michigan Avenue wasn’t derelict and boarded up, but had some nice stores and restaurants. Have you ever been inside the Wolverine? Wow. And the food at Dalat? I didn’t expect that in Ypsilanti. But the places that made me realize that Ypsilanti would be a nice place to live were the Ypsilanti Food Coop, The Ugly Mug and the Corner Brewery. Obviously, knowing almost nobody here, I was relying on these places as markers in a way, as to the kind of people that might live here. On our last day, before returning to San Francisco, I started feeling this overwhelming sadness. I knew that, because I could gladly live in Ypsilanti, I would be cutting many of my ties with San Francisco. That still makes me sad.
MARK: Is there anything that you would like to find here that you haven’t been able to find so far?
LEE: So, on the one hand the Corner Brewery makes the best beer I’ve ever had in my life; and the Coop’s River Street Bakery makes really good bread. On the other hand, the cafe/restaurant/local fast food here is pretty monotonous. As much as I love the coffee at The Ugly Mug, for example, I think they could do a whole lot better in the food category. Burritos were my staple food back in San Francisco. They are now fond memories. (To be fair, the tacos at Dos Amigos are great, as long as you don’t want chicken or vegetarian.) Most of all, though, I miss the random conversations with strangers and acquaintances in bookstores, cafes, on the streets. I learned so much from them.
MARK: Despite your initial concerns about coming to Michigan, how have you found things here, non-legislatively speaking? My sense is that we’re a fairly welcoming community, but I’m probably not the best judge of such things.
LEE: Everyone in Ypsilanti has been really friendly. My first day here, back in January, I went to the post office and damn, if the clerk didn’t have a long conversation with every single person who came to her window. It was incredibly frustrating, yet, also my first glimpse at how things are done around here. We moved into a new (to us) house last month and on the first day, two sets of neighbors came by and said, “You must be the guys from California.” Uh, yeah. Hi. Today I met the next door neighbor whose back yard opens to our side yard. Her name is Jackie and she is as friendly as they come. I also have the sense that Ypsi is pretty liberal; so, while I won’t go out of my way to talk politics, I won’t avoid the subject.
MARK: I’ve heard that you did a lot of research before deciding to move here. Among other things, I heard that you joined Bike Ypsi before even being in the state. I’m curious as to what you thought of the information available about the town and its various organizations online, and how it reflected the reality of the situation once you got here.
LEE: Before moving here I spent a lot of time on-line looking at websites about Ypsilanti. I think the only one I followed continuously was annarbor.com. But I did find out about BikeYpsi, the B to B Trail, and Growing Hope. I was excited to see they were doing good work here. One thing I did on-line, before my first visit here was look at Ypsilanti’s streets through Google Maps Streetview. It really screws with your sense of place, since you have no idea what you’re looking at. Some of the streets just looked sad and ugly. But, I have no idea which part of town I was looking at. Being here, I find it all kind of attractive. Yesterday I rode my bike around the old Ford plant and thought it was terrific. How many small towns in America have a closed down Ford plant? Not many. (I just remembered that GM recently closed down its NUMMI plant in Fremont, just east of San Francisco. That was really a shame.)
MARK: As you owned a store that primarily dealt with travel publications, I’m curious as to how you might pitch Ypsi to potential tourists. Is there, from what you can tell, potential here? Is there a niche, given your experience, for a vacation destination such as Ypsi?
LEE: Tourist destinations are weird things. Many of them are sheer artifice, like Universal Studios or Disneyland. And cities that are interesting in their own right, still manage to steer tourists to the cruddiest confections, while passing it off as authentic. In San Francisco, what could be more of a waste of time than Pier 39 or Ghirardelli Square? Rob and I rode our bikes over to Fort Mason a couple years ago, and passed through Ghirardelli Square. (This is in San Francisco.) The line for the overpriced, mediocre ice cream sundaes was maybe 300 long. Go over to Bi-Rite Creamery’s ice cream shop on 18th Street. It’s one of the two best locally made ice cream in San Francisco. On a busy, busy day, when the sun is shining on a weekend afternoon, there are maybe 25 people in line. So, yeah, I don’t really understand tourist destinations.
We’ve had maybe four or five friends come visit us in Ypsilanti. And, frankly, the tour lasts about 45 minutes at most. If you include a beer at The Corner Brewery, it goes on another hour. You can’t experience a place in 45 minutes, but you can see it pretty thoroughly. I always tell people who are coming to visit that Ypsilanti is actually beautiful. And it is. The Huron River flowing through town along its natural banks (until it gets to Ford Lake and the dam, that is) is so lovely. I grew up with creeks in L.A. and they were all paved and straight as an arrow. I’m still surprised that greed and capital haven’t made a total mess of the Huron River (again, except for Ford Lake and its 80 years of heavy metals, mercury and other sewage sitting on the bottom.) Having said that, it would be hard to imagine Ypsi as a weekend getaway.
MARK: I’d like to know what, if any, encouragement you got from the University after your boyfriend was hired, to settle down in Ypsilanti? Could the University, in your estimation, do more to encourage new faculty to live in the City?
LEE: I don’t think we got any encouragement from EMU about settling down in Ypsilanti. But, where else would we settle down in? I romanticized living in Detroit (I still do) but who wants to be on the freeway every day? Ann Arbor is a nice place to visit, but I don’t want to live there. It reminds me of Berkeley, but without the good food, or the bookstores, or the Pacific Film Archive or the views of the Bay. In short, it has little in common with Berkeley. I just don’t find it as appealing as Ypsilanti. And, frankly, in San Francisco I rode my bike to work for over a decade, in rain and shine. I don’t like to get in a car if I don’t have to. And, living in Ypsilanti, it is only a 10 minute bike ride (7 if I go quickly) from our house to Jones Pool, in the center of campus. Maybe EMU does encourage its new faculty to live in town, but I never heard about it. I am going to assume they don’t do outreach on the subject.
MARK: It doesn’t really have anything to do with your moving here, but I’m curious, as a former bookstore owner, what you make of the Borders liquidation? I’d also like to know what you think about the future of independent bookstores.
LEE: The expansion of Borders and Barnes & Noble in the 1990s was a very bad thing for book selling. Luckily, their impact in San Francisco was nil. But their attempt to grab market share by discounting New York Times bestsellers by 40%, hardback books 30% and so on did no one any good, not even consumers. The French government has it right. Bookstores are cultural institutions, and books are not the same sort of commodity as a chair. They, therefore, limit discounting to 5%. As a result, it is illegal for Amazon to offer free shipping in France, since it gives them a price advantage. But, with on-line shopping, especially in Europe, where you can order from Amazon in Britain, and get the discounts and free or almost free shipping, French bookstores are starting to suffer now, too. Anyway, I am just counting the days until Barnes & Noble will morph into something like Radio Shack: they’ll both sell electronic goods (e-readers and other such nonsense, in the case of B&N) but you know that once upon a time, they both used to be completely different businesses. Radio Shack gave up on the ‘build-your-own-radio-with-our-radio-parts” model, and I honestly think Barnes and Noble will treat books as a sideline. Because, to them it is just product. Goodbye, Borders. As my dad always says in his most sarcastic tone about something or someone he is criticizing, “Goodbye, Good luck.”
MARK: If you haven’t heard yet, the Republicans in Lansing are once again trying to revoke domestic partner benefits from state employees, which would include the faculty and staff of state schools. As the partner/boyfriend of a university employee, I’m curious to know your thoughts, and whether you agree that backward, homophobic moves like this will make it more difficult for our universities to be competitive, and, for that matter, stay relevant. My hope that the Governor will veto this, but, should this pass, would it affect your decision to stay and make your home in Michigan?
LEE: As for the Neanderthals who just passed a law in the Michigan Assembly stripping Domestic Partner benefits from state employees, as well as universities, and all union bargaining agreements: I feel like I’m watching Oprah around 1985, when her show was still more of the tabloid model. She’d have some panel on gay rights, pro and con, with each side supposedly getting equal say. And you’d sit there and listen to the lies and ignorance about gay people, especially as it concerned AIDS, or employment discrimination, and you couldn’t believe that any one believes that crap. The worst part was, the rhetoric was always couched in love. “I have nothing against gay people but…” “God says love the sinner, hate the sin…” And you think to yourself, “You motherfucking hypocritical morons.” Here we are, all these years later, facing the same bigotry, but now we can call it ‘fiscal responsibility’. (In fact it will be a huge pay cut, once I have to buy individual health coverage. As it is, the Federal government taxes us on our health insurance benefit – at its market rate, not the rate we actually pay for it – since they do not recognize LGBT couples.) Michigan Neanderthals – ok, let’s just call them what they are, Republicans – think the solution to attract talent and capital to this state is by cutting $1.5 billion in corporate tax, as well as Domestic Partner benefits to its state and university employees. I can only speak for myself and not my boyfriend, but if that bill is signed into law, I’m telling Rob, “Get your tenure, and let’s get out of here.”
MARK: And I wouldn’t blame you. On the positive side, though, we’ve been pretty good at beating these guys back the last few times that they’ve tried… Speaking of gay stuff, I’ve always thought that our area could support another gay-centric bar in addition to Ann Arbor’s Aut Bar. I know you’ve only been here a short while, but I’m curious as to whether you think Ypsi could support such a place.
LEE: I’m not that interested in bars of any kind, unless one considers The Corner Brewery a bar. But, from an economic standpoint I don’t think a gay bar could survive in this town. A far more interesting approach would be to have a ‘gay night’ at Woodward’s, or that place on Michigan and Washington. I heard there was once a weekly gay night called “Elbow Deep” or something like that at the Elbow Room.
MARK: The crew that did the Elbow Deep drag shows at the old Elbow Room is now at Woodruff’s. They’re not every week, but I believe there’s one coming up this Saturday. If you’re interested, let me know and I can introduce you to folks… One last thing… I was wondering if you might have any questions for our readers?
LEE: Everyone is telling me how fun it will be to pick apples and go on hay rides. This sounds exactly like I’m from San Francisco, but, where can you pick organic apples? I have never gone cross-country skiing. Where can you go nearby to ski, and where can you rent skis? Where would you go for a weekend getaway within maybe 3 hours of Ypsilanti? Besides Toledo, of course. Finally, what amazing thing(s) do I have to see in Detroit (besides the Heidelberg Project, the Fischer Building, the Guardian Building, Mies van der Rohe’s buildings, Fort Wayne and the old train station.)
Please join me in welcoming Lee to the community, and be sure to leave a comment if you know where one might go to pick organic apples.