Literati Bookstore is a perfect welcome mat for Ann Arbor, Mich. The sunlight streaming through the windows of this space, which smells of freshly milled paper and promise, makes you wonder if Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks might meet here in a “You’ve Got Mail” sequel. The independent bookstore is a thriving underdog business in a city that seems wholly directed toward supporting underdogs — and intellect.
I take a seat at the Hermes 3000 public typewriter in the bookstore’s basement and tap out a message on its green keys: “Home is where spring is magic and people say ‘pop.’”
This is home for me — well, not Ann Arbor exactly, but close enough that I have good memories of visiting the town while I was growing up. I fancied attending the University of Michigan for a time but ended up at rival Michigan State.
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Since I moved to Austin five years ago, I find myself missing the annual Michigan spring rites, when the thermometer surges up to a balmy 50 degrees and people practically dance in the streets in praise of the elusive sun, which they always jokingly refer to as a “mysterious glowing orb.”
And pop. I miss ordering “pop.”
Food that brings joy
I’m in Michigan during my annual pilgrimage back home and hoping to explore new tastes, sites and sounds in a city that feels a bit like Austin, if Austin had more flannel in its wardrobe.
If you’re new to Ann Arbor, most folks will direct you to Zingerman’s, referring to the downtown deli with long lines to the counter on most weekdays. The sandwiches here are legendary, apparently even counting Oprah Winfrey and former President Barack Obama among the fans of the pastrami.
For nearly four decades, Zingerman’s not only has built an empire in Ann Arbor by expanding its business to the nearby Zingerman’s Roadhouse, plus a robust mail-order company as well as cheese and candy shops, but it also functions as a business incubator for other local restaurants.
One such restaurant is Miss Kim, a trendy Korean cafe and passion project of Ji Hye Kim, who studied economics and political science at U of M before turning to food as a passion.
“When I asked myself what it is that I want to do, I wanted to do something that brings me joy,” said Kim. “Food brings me joy.”
Using some of her mother’s recipes and her memories of food growing up in Seoul, Kim created her own Korean syllabus filled with regional cookbooks and culinary history to invent new takes on treasured dishes such as bibimbap and the Korean spirit called soju. She infuses hers with flavors like black sesame and rose.
Miss Kim is a fair wage restaurant, which means tipping is optional.
“I have this wonderful memory of my mother in the fall sitting around with other women in the neighborhood saying, ‘Should we do 50 heads of cabbage or 100 this time?’” she says, introducing her kimchi. Try to catch her during a slow service — her storytelling is almost as good as the food.
Not to be missed: Kim’s tteokbokki, a traditional Korean street food made with rice cake and her house-made gochujang sauce, topped with a poached egg, black sesame seeds and strands of saffron. As a child, she used to trade the milk carton from her school lunch to buy tteokbokki from local vendors. One bite and you understand why it landed on the menu.
In the neighboring town of Ypsilanti, stop at Casablanca, a Moroccan restaurant located in a former Taco Bell building where Hamzah Mohammad is connecting diners with richly spiced cuisine from his home country, including bistilla, phyllo stuffed with herbed chicken, lightly flavored with cinnamon and orange blossom and dusted with powdered sugar.
Much like the community’s enthusiasm for independent bookstores, Ann Arbor seems eager to support local restaurants and food producers, from a perennially crowded weekend farmers market to a for-profit local grocer, Argus Farm Stop, stocked exclusively with locally grown produce and goods.
Honoring the spring rites
Because you can’t eat every moment of your trip (though it’s worth a try), there are other activities worth exploring in Ann Arbor.
I took my first fly-fishing lesson here on the Huron River, a haven for small-mouth bass. Sun sparkled on the gently flowing water while I practiced casting my line over and over again under the patient tutelage of Capt. Colten Decker from Schultz Outfitters.
We didn’t catch anything (and due to health advisories, all fishing is catch and release, anyway), but the time in nature during Michigan’s spring and summer was priceless. Michigan is known for its lakes, but its rivers are vastly underappreciated places where it’s not unusual to spend afternoons being guided by herons or saluted by turtles sunning themselves on river rocks.
“Spring in Michigan is magical,” Decker said as we watched birds and people emerging along the riverbank in the sunshine after a long winter — words I later immortalized on the Literati typewriter.
In downtown Ann Arbor, treat yourself to tickets for a live show at the Ark, renowned for storytelling festivals (the Moth story slams are regular events here) and thousands of singer-songwriters in all stages of their careers. Next door, stop in at the Blue LLama Jazz Club for a musical set and a cocktail before or after the show.
U of M boasts several museums that are free and open to the public, including the Natural History Museum, which just opened in its new location in April and is unveiling three more exhibit spaces at the end of this year.
The museum’s focus on peeling back the layers on what it means to do research means the public can interact with scientists doing their work right before their eyes, such as in the paleontology lab — and in some cases, even contribute to the research by helping with crowdsourced “citizen science.”
“We’re really trying to break down the intimidation factor,” said museum director Amy Harris.
Make sure to leave enough time to simply wander the shops in the Kerrytown district and elsewhere (Liberty Street Robot & Repair piqued my curiosity, in addition to the Ann Arbor outpost of Detroit watchmaker Shinola).
No matter where you go, you’d never be too far from a cozy spot to curl up with a good book and a mug of coffee (from an independent roaster, of course), or a pop — a recipe for a perfect afternoon to get lost in your thoughts.