He “Received Life as a Gift” – Karl Pohrt

I have the privilege of spending a few hours today among what I suspect will be several hundred people who are gathering to remember Karl Pohrt and honor his life and good works.

Karl founded and owned Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor, where it thrived for most of my adult life until it got caught up in the industry changes that have challenged so so many local retailers in America. I remember as a young bookseller coming to Ann Arbor to see my sister, who was attending the University of Michigan. I was very hot to see this local bookstore called “Borders” which was—gasp!—using computers to manage its large inventory. My sister acknowledged it was a very good store but reserved her real excitement for a small shop called “Shaman Drum”—excited for me to see it and knowing it wasn’t something I was going to see very often in my bookstore education.

She was right. It was an academic bookstore like no other—unabashedly smart, democratic, inviting. Looking at the displays just made you feel happy about the life of the mind and the adventures that intellectual curiosity can offer.

It stayed that way. And it got better and better. The final location was a sunlit, spare and beautifully carpentered church of the mind. The inventory was one of the best I’ve seen in over 30 years of bookselling. It was clearly a labor of love–in the way that all the very best things in the world are.

Karl died this past Wednesday and I have found myself thinking of him, of this large life and influence, of the small amount of time we shared together. In terms of his “large life” you need only know his obituary is the Los Angeles Times this morning to get an idea of how big an influence he had on independent bookselling in the United States. Others have weighed in on their blogs and in reactions on those blogs and I suspect there will be many more recollections in the weeks to come—all of us wanting to pile our memories like small stones into a thank you for his life.

Karl’s store closed in 2009. That’s when I feel like I really started to learn from him. He read, he wrote, he traveled—both to help out where help was needed in the world and to learn about the world. He’d spent much of his life involved in Buddhism and continued to contemplate and act in a mindful way that made his own and so many peoples’ lives richer.

He leaves us a lovely document about a life well lived. Filled with thoughtfulness, kindness, curiosity, intellectual and emotional engagement, There is No Gap started thirteen years ago (appropriately enough for a bookseller) with book reviews. But over the years it spun into something much larger and wiser. I’ve been reading it again this week and thinking of my friend—of how the gift he gave so many of us is a bit like that blog. It started with a kind of bookish collegiality and grew richer and more wide-ranging over the years, helping us to see what our life’s work really is.

To close, here’s a recent excerpt from There is No Gap:

I’m also rereading Chuang-tzu. I especially admire his descriptions of the ancient Daoist sages:

They received life as a gift
and handed it back gratefully.
Minds supple, faces serene,
in a crisis cool as autumn,
in relationships warm as spring….

There was no limit to their freedom.

So I’m trying not to waste my energy leaning away from this. I am tired, but I remain in good spirits.”

–Karl Pohrt


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