Karl Pohrt Papers

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Karl Pohrt Papers

The materials in this online repository form part of a larger Karl Pohrt manuscript collection held by the Bentley Historical Library. For a more complete index to the materials, please consult the collection's online finding aid.

For questions or more information, please contact the Bentley Historical Library's Division of Reference and Access Services

Owner and operator of the Shaman Drum Bookshop, a noted independent bookstore in Ann Arbor (Mich.) that gained national recognition and regularly hosted leading contemporary American writers from 1981 until its closure in 2009. Materials in this online repository include photographs, correspondence, and writings related to Pohrt's personal life as well as video recordings and photographs from events at the Shaman Drum Bookshop and other community initiatives with which he was involved.

Karl Weidner Pohrt is perhaps best known as the owner of the Shaman Drum, an independent bookstore in Ann Arbor, yet he was also a poet, activist, teacher, scholar and publisher. An accomplished scholar of American ‘Beat Generation’ literature and practicing Buddhist, Pohrt was also a longtime friend of the poet Gary Snyder. Pohrt was born in 1948 in Flint, Michigan; after earning his bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Michigan-Flint in 1970, Pohrt worked at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor to fulfill his service obligation as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He then worked as a bookseller at Centicore Books, a bookstore in Ann Arbor in the early seventies, before finishing a master’s degree in American Culture at the University of Michigan in 1978. While working on his master’s degree, Pohrt helped establish the Bear Claw Press in Ann Arbor with his brother, artist and illustrator Tom Pohrt. Pohrt also worked as a writing instructor in the 1970s and taught an English and composition as an adjunct at the University of Michigan Flint in 1980. He left teaching to open an independent bookstore on State Street in Ann Arbor in 1981.

The Shaman Drum Bookshop went on to become a nationally recognized bookstore as well as a central gathering place for the community of arts and letters in Ann Arbor. Despite the rise of online booksellers, textbook sales helped keep Pohrt’s business financially sustainable. Pohrt cultivated a niche for readers interested in scholarly and academic literature, while maintaining a welcoming atmosphere attractive to the Ann Arbor community at large. Located at 311 S State Street in downtown Ann Arbor, Shaman Drum’s proximity to the University’s Central Campus also helped strengthen town-gown relations.

Pohrt served several terms as the president of the American Bookseller’s Association. In addition, Pohrt was a board member for the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority and State Street Association. He also served as the president of the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair in 2006 and helped with the founding of the first Ann Arbor Book Festival in 2003. Pohrt helped co-found an initiative known as “Reading the World” in 2005, inviting independent booksellers and publishers nationwide to display foreign literature published in translation each year through the month of May. In 2006, George Eley, a University of Michigan professor of German history, received a distinguished professorship and named it for Karl Pohrt, becoming the Karl Pohrt Distinguished University Professor of Contemporary History. Eley explained he wanted to honor Pohrt’s commitment to promoting the humanities and higher education in Ann Arbor to help improve the political, social, and cultural life of the city.

Despite the success and the reputation of the Shaman Drum as a center for cultural and intellectual gatherings in Ann Arbor, increased competition with online booksellers and other forms of digital publication during the economic recession resulted in a steep and sudden decline in sales at the Shaman Drum, pushing Pohrt to dramatically adjust the store’s mission and strategic plan. In February 2008, Pohrt announced that he would transform his privately owned store into a nonprofit literary arts center. With this transition, Pohrt intended to expand the shop’s community programming from poetry readings, book signings, and literary receptions to offer courses in literature and creative writing. He opened the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center at the Shaman Drum Bookshop in the summer of 2008. Nevertheless, the combined forces of the recession and continuing competition with online retailers and Internet media ultimately took their toll on the Shaman Drum. Pohrt closed the Shaman Drum in June 2009.

After closing down his business, Pohrt continued to write about books, culture and ideas in his personal blog. Pohrt was diagnosed with cancer in October 2012 and continued to publish his blog until May 2013. He died on July 10, 2013 and was survived by his wife, Diane, and two daughters.

Please note:

Copyright has not been transferred to the Regents of the University of Michigan.

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