Remembering Karl Pohrt, the man behind Ann Arbor’s Shaman Drum

karlpohrtLate last week, Karl Pohrt, the driving force behind Ann Arbor’s historic Shaman Drum book shop, passed away at the age of 65 after a long battle with thyroid cancer. Having been an admirer of his work over the years, I’d wanted to mention his passing on the site, and offer up a place for people in the community who knew and loved Karl to share their stories, but, as I didn’t know him personally, I found the task a bit daunting. Fortunately, however, I happened across an online post by my friend Jean Henry, who, as a young woman, worked at Shaman Drum. And, after a short conversation with Jean, I found myself exchanging notes with the likes of Raymond McDaniel, Keith Taylor and other longtime associates of Karl’s. And, quite organically, a picture began to emerge of Karl from their shared remembrances, the majority of which you can read below. What follows is by no means exhaustive. I didn’t even begin to scratch the surface when it comes to family, friends and those drawn, over the years, into the orbit of Karl and Shaman Drum. Still, though, I think that, taken in total, these short snapshots provide a beautiful eulogy… the kind which any of us, I suspect, would be happy to receive upon our passing.

Jean Henry:

When I was 20 something, a bookish, damaged diner waitress who did a lot of solo traveling – not yet outward-facing to the world – I applied on a whim to work book rush at Shaman Drum. I sat in the newly opened espresso cafe across the street and interviewed for the temp job with two managers, and, surprisingly, the owner, Karl Pohrt.

I had no experience. I fumbled through the interview. I really wanted the job. I love bookstores, and I wanted to be inside the workings of one. Karl asked me what I liked to read. I felt self-conscious that my preferences made no sense, because they were totally mine, not directed by any outside agent. “I like 19th century American literature, not English. And modernism – Eastern European, French, American and Gertrude Stein. But, lately, I’ve just been reading about the West – history and social history, but mostly naturalists; Barry Lopez, Edward Abbey, Gretel Erlich… John Muir. I know they don’t seem to mix, but they do in my mind.”

“You’re hired.”

I loved Shaman Drum. (Who didn’t?) I learned more stamping books, talking to Earl and Currie, than I ever did reading a book. It was an everyday roundtable of subversive thought with literary and pop culture references, tragic personal detail, biting wit and love. I can’t articulate it well, but it was both f’d up and magical. Maybe all magical places are. I spent a total of just a few months at the Drum, but, if you measure experiences by durable lessons and warm friendships, it was one of the best jobs I ever had.

In the spring after after that first book rush, I loaded up my car and travelled West to run a river in Idaho. I took the Northern route – Hwy 90 through Minnesota and South Dakota. I camped in the high plains and then drove up, up, up through Wyoming. I was just two days and a lifetime removed from Ann Arbor. I stopped, on a whim, at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody. There was a banner out front: “Grand Opening of the Pohrt Collection, Saturday”.

It was Friday. I went down anyway. Karl’s father, Richard A. Pohrt, an engineer in Flint, had amassed in his lifetime the most comprehensive collection of Plains Indian artifacts in the world. The visual impact as I descended the stairs was overwhelming. The robes, blankets, medicine pouches, war bonnets, and weapons claimed their place. They had agency. They can not, in that number, be denied. I turned a corner. Karl’s father was being interviewed about the collection. His wife was standing quietly by. They must have been close to 80. I listened and walked through the collection. I felt a rush of interconnectedness, all the threads of a life and the world intricately twining.

As I left, Karl’s mother was carefully, slowly tying her husband’s shoe for him. I thought about a life well lived. I thought about the ties that bind. I thought about impossible endeavors and f’d up, magical and human places in this world.

I hit the road.

God speed, Karl. Thank you.

Keith Taylor:

For all of the 1990s, I saw Karl Pohrt every working day. Because his hearing had gone bad, and he had difficulty talking with customers at the bookshop, I was often the public face of it. In fact, people often thought I was Karl. Usually I corrected them. Because we worked together, and because, in my role at the store, I was responsible for some of his investments, we often had disagreements. None of those lingered.

Through his family history, Karl knew a lot about Native American culture, museums, and the arts of collecting. Through his early definition as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he had learned a lot about political theory. Through is academic training in American Culture at the University of Michigan, he knew a lot about American literature and popular culture. He was fascinated by the more inclusive sides of Christianity, although he was most passionate as a Buddhist. He had not only practiced, but he had studied both traditions. He was an avid reader and participant in contemporary American letters, and I think was most pleased by the last incarnation of his bookshop, when it had become a central part of new writing here and around the world.

But, in a town like Ann Arbor, we have many people who work hard at scholarship and the arts. What is unique about Karl is that he kept all of these passions, while devoting much of his time to his community – and by that I mean Ann Arbor, the city, this place, where he lived, and played, and paid taxes. He worked happily on many unglamorous projects, on public parking, on street repair and rerouting, on local festivals that might bring in more people who might buy things here and support us all. Perhaps this dedication might have grown out of the Buddhist idea of the sangha, but I think it was more fundamental than that. In some deep, fundamental part of himself, Karl Pohrt believed he was part of a community, one that included everyone who shared this place with him, whether he liked those people or not. Any success we had must be measured also by the success of the least among us. That example is Karl’s greatest legacy.

Ian Fulcher:

Karl Pohrt figured out a way to give an academic bookstore to a town that should’ve wanted one. More importantly, he fostered a business model that allowed for actual human beings to work and manage the place. It wasn’t business acumen as much as it was humanity that held that place together for the longest time. It felt like family.

As a young lecturer new to Michigan (the state and the ‘University of’), I was extremely lucky that I found my way to Karl’s store and to land a side job there. Virtually all of my current and vital friendships had a starting point under his roof. R.I.P. Karl. You will be missed.

Patrick Elkins:

Karl was an incredibly multi-faceted person who was a champion of civic, intellectual, and spiritual engagement. I met him at Shaman Drum Bookshop, where I worked over a ten year-span from 1999-2009. In Shaman Drum, Karl helped create a space that was an expression of his larger commitment to the idea of what a community of people is capable of being. Perhaps most importantly, Karl helped foster a sense of family among the employees and customers in the store that transcended any notion that business or commerce was more important than the interactions and experiences that such a unique space made possible. In his professional and personal life he was a man of conviction, generosity, and compassion who, when faced with difficult choices, remained true to the ideals that he held.

Most of the anecdotes that I have concerning Karl that had the greatest personal effect on me are ones that I don’t feel comfortable sharing, but one thing that has always struck me about Karl is that despite the fact that I know people who have disagreed with him at various points over the years, I don’t know anyone who didn’t ultimately respect him. His popularity among his peers, friends, and family was due in no small part to the vigor with which he approached all undertakings, a spirit that will feed our communities long after the bricks of a building or the flesh of a body have departed.

Raymond McDaniel:

When you are young, you may think that there’s such a thing as age-appropriate death. You may not know exactly what a full span is, but you suspect there must be one, because otherwise how do you make sense of a phrase like “dying too young”? I knew Karl for twenty years. I met him when he was the age I am now. He died too young, but now I see that everyone does.

That said, a life can be measured not only in days but in how how many moments of those days you actually show up for. And I believe Karl was fully present for every moment of his life, because he was the most sincere man I’ve ever met. When you speak falsely, or prevaricate, or in any other way detach yourself from whatever your life presents you: that is a kind of absence. It’s lost time. I never knew Karl to hold himself apart in that way. I think it would have struck him as selfish, alien, unconscionable.

Being sincere, of course, is no guarantee of quality. But everything I saw Karl do, he did in a spirit of generosity and good faith. We didn’t always agree, but even when we fought I knew that it mattered to him that he show up for the fight, that he be present and committed, and despite the heat of any given disagreement I never doubted that his response came from a simple, frank desire to do good or to see good done. He could neither calculate nor manipulate for a damn, and if that limited him in any way, well, those limits just prove that many, many small decent deeds accumulate to much more than any single enormous achievement, especially one made at the cost of treating others as means and not as ends in and of themselves.

When I count the good things in my life, the things so good I never believed I could have them, I find Karl is the author of a disproportionate number of them. My true education, which came from words and writers. My home, my best friends, my loved ones, the books I’ve been able to write and see in the world. All of this, because Karl decided that a place to share literature and ideas was something that everyone deserved, and that he was going to dedicate himself to providing that. I know that if he is responsible for so much of what is rich in my life that he is equally responsible for the richness in the lives of many others, some of whom I to have been lucky enough to know.

Karl was essentially sweet, a goof, a lover of both the ridiculous and the sublime. He adored children and manga and detourment and seeing people learn and thrive and grow. The first book he ever sold me was Little, Big, a work in which I found, if such a thing is possible, a superabundance of heart, a condition I will ever associate with him. When we hosted our last event at Shaman Drum, I told the audience that they should never believe that the store’s closing was any kind of failure. Every book sold, every conversation started, every author given her first shot, ever kid given his first job, every single day we were open: all of these, gifts, irrevocable, simply because Karl wanted to give them. I am forever in his debt, but I know that a debt is something he would consider paid if only we, too, acted with the good faith and generosity that marked every moment of his exceptional, admirable life.

I hosted over 500 events at the Shaman Drum, and often, visiting writers or people from out of town or just first-time customers would ask me if I was the owner. And I would laugh and say no, no. But let me tell you about the man who is.

Donations in Karl’s name, if you’d like to show your appreciation for his contributions to our community, can be made to the Children’s Literacy Network.

UPDATE: I’m not certain, but, from what I hear, much of Karl’s father’s collection is now owned by the DIA. One can only hope it’s not sold off at auction to pay off the debts of Detroit… Also, I know this is a long shot, but I hear from Jean that Karl’s father had written a very good piece on his collection, which was included in the program for the 1992 show she referenced above. The piece, as she recalls, was titled “The Collector’s Life.” Neither she, nor I, can find it online, but I thought that I’d mention it, in case one of you out there is a librarian who’s good at hunting such things down. I’d love to read it, if it exists somewhere online.

UPDATE: OK, I kept digging, and I believe that the essay in question can be found in Art of the American Indian Frontier: The Chandler-Pohrt Collection – a book put out by the University of Washington Press in 1992. And, yes, it would seem that the DIA does have some incredible pieces that once belonged to Richard and Marion Pohrt.

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  1. LisaD
    Posted July 15, 2013 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for doing this, Mark! I met Karl when I was thinking of starting Think Local First in 2003. I think I can pretty safely say it wouldn’t exist without him – I wandered in there as a naive 28 year old, and he gave me the contacts and the confidence to move forward. I really appreciated his vision for what COULD be in so many aspects of the community, and the amazing range of his knowledge.

  2. Oliva
    Posted July 15, 2013 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  3. Meta
    Posted July 16, 2013 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Oddly, I saw on the news this morning that Harrisburg, PA is selling off western artifacts, including items owned by Buffalo Bill Cody, in order to pay its debts. Apparently this isn’t just something happening in Detroit.

  4. Posted July 16, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    karl was indeed a remarkable man in so many ways. i feel so lucky to have known him. he deeply loved his family: his wife dianne, a dedicated teacher of english as an additional language in ann arbor and nicaragua and also an accomplished woodworker; his delightful daughters tanya and tasha, their husbands kraig and william (whose touching words and tears as he spoke at karl’s memorial service made me cry for the umpteenth time that day); his adored three small grandchildren. we talked about our concerns and hopes for the world these kids may live in as they grow up. one of the many books he recommended for me was “Becoming Anima: an Earthly Cosmologyl” by david abram, reminding us of the intereconnectedness of all us beings, from rocks and rivers to mosquitoes and politicians. If you haven’t sampled karl’s courageous and thoughtful blog “there is no gap,” i recommend you take a look at it.

    a few years ago, karl and dianne came to recycle some lovely silvery wood from an old barn that had collapsed in my neighborhood. they were planning to build a traditional japanese tea house as a place of meditation. as Karl tore out a board with a claw-hammer, he enthusiastically proclaimed “I am a man of action!” and so he was. the world is certainly a better place for his presence, and the individuals in his loving family are making a difference too. they are an inspiration to us all.

  5. Posted July 16, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    woops, a typo “Becoming Animal” not anima!

  6. Posted July 16, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    My first job was at Shaman Drum. I started as book rush helper during the fall of my freshman year of high school. I ended up sticking around for about a year before they could get rid of me. What an experience that was. The blend of personalities working there felt like Karl was curating his own collection of conversation partners. There was never a dull moment and no witticism went unuttered. Though my career took me elsewhere books are still a central part of my life. Much of that love was learned at Shaman Drum. Thanks Mark, this is a really excellent piece!

  7. Megan Croissant
    Posted July 16, 2013 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Karl gave me my first job out of college at Shaman Drum, and it was a place where I grew, learned, developed dear friendships, felt a sense of community I had in no way felt before and have little felt since, and talked and talked and talked with colleagues, friends, and customers (often one and the same). I am so grateful to Karl for creating such a space, and for allowing me to be a part of it in a way that I have treasured.

    Shortly after I began as a bookseller, I found Karl sitting on the ground near “Register 1.” He was pulling books off of the shelf, examining, and carefully reorganizing. I was surprised to see the owner of the store involved in such a menial task. I laughed and he smiled. “Sometimes it’s important to just get your hands on the books.”

  8. dot dot dash
    Posted July 17, 2013 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    Sadly, the young people working in that space now, flipping burgers at Five Guys, aren’t getting anywhere near the same experience.

  9. Posted July 18, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Karl never liked me, but I loved his store and was sad to see it go.

    Many people don’t realize that Karl had the largest selection of Tibetan Buddhist texts for sale in the western world.

    He was a great and cantankerous guy. I’m sad to see him go.

  10. XXX
    Posted July 18, 2013 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    So, now can I buy Pohrt’s collection from the DIA?

  11. Bushy Trott
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    Mark, you and Karl are truly birds of a feather,

  12. Posted July 19, 2013 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    By that, do you mean that we both dislike Pete?

  13. Ben
    Posted August 1, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    It looks like that book, while out of print, is available through interlibrary loan (MeLCat) through your local library! :)

  14. Posted August 1, 2013 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Ben.

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