Jay Platt proprietor of West Side Books in Ann Arbor is the quintessential antiquarian book store owner. He can trace his interests in owning a book store back to at least 1970 when he visited Book Row, the legendary New York Bookstores on 4th Avenue.
“It turned on a lightbulb in my head,” Platt said.
“In the back of my mind I always wanted to own a bookshop,” he said.
Platt had graduated from the University of Michigan with an engineering degree in naval architecture and ship design, but knew “he never wanted to do that.”
His interest in boats however did help spur his own collecting interests including nautical books and books on polar exploration along with books by Jack Kerouac. Before opening West Side Books Platt worked at SBS Books on South University, Neds in Ypsilanti and at David’s Book Emporium where he was in charge of the rare books.
When he was ready to take the leap into the book store business in 1975 he used his house as collateral to borrow $3000 to open the store and it’s been at the same location ever since on 113 West Liberty Street in an historic building dating to 1888. Coincidentally, the location was once the home to a German bookseller.
In 1976, he took another leap and by sponsoring the Arbor Antiquarian Book Fair held annually in the spring at the Michigan Union. He said in the 1970s he was riding the crest of a wave of what he now calls the “slow book movement.” He said since that time (pre-internet) he’s seen the romance driven from the book business.
He recalls at the time that catalogs and the ABE Weekly were the two primary mechanisms for buying and selling book across the country. He distinctly remembers one mimeographed catalog from which he purchased a first edition of Kerouac’s “Town and the City” for $1.50.
Platt also believes that people aren’t as literate as they used to be.
“We’re just less broadly educated,” he said.
“There was a whole generation in the 1970s which helped create the renaissance in the antiquarian book selling business.”
You can imagine that someone who has been in the bookselling business since 1975 has a lot of stories to tell, but one of his favorites was the day a women walked into his shop and asked “Do you have any books by Jack Kerouac?”
As it turned out the woman was “Frank” Edie Kerouac-Parker, Jack Kerouac’s first wife from Grosse Point, Michigan. In their ensuing conversation Platt learned that Kerouac had based the book “Town and the City” on Ann Arbor Michigan rather than his hometown which was commonly believed. Edie Parkerk would later do an event in the store which still ranks as one of his personal highpoints.
Platt was recently selected for the 2013 Kerrytown BookFest Community Book Award for his contributions to the literary life of Ann Arbor. Platt will receive the award at the Kerrytown BookFest which is set for Sunday, September 8 at the Farmers’ Market in Ann Arbor. The BookFest which is in its 11th year features more than 30 authors, book artists and more than 100 exhibitors selling books and book-related items. For more information www.kerrytownbookfest.org
Robin Agnew proprietor of mystery bookstore Aunt Agatha’s Books and president of the BookFest said “Jay Platt is the quintessential antiquarian bookseller and has added so much to the literary fabric of the community.”
“He loves books, writing and authors and his zest for the bookselling business can be felt all across Ann Arbor,” she said.
Gene Alloway former Kerrytown BookFest president and owner of Motte and Bailey Books said “Jay goes beyond the call; especially for new booksellers.”
“He is generous with his advice and is an excellent mentor to collectors.”
Most days of the week you can usually catch Jay Platt sitting behind his desk just inside the door of West Side Books where he’s either sorting and pricing books or working the daily New York Times crossword puzzle in ink.