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'Notes From A Public Typewriter' Muse On Everything From Cats To Commencement

Apr 16, 2018
Originally published on April 17, 2018 1:40 pm

When it's closing time at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, co-owner Michael Gustafson runs through a checklist that, for the most part, is pretty routine. First, make sure all the customers have gone, lock the doors and take out the garbage and the recycling. Shelve any stray books, adjust the tables, turn off the music.

Then, after closing out the registers, Gustafson descends one last time to the store's lower level, the part of the bookstore stuffed with volumes on cooking and gardening, travel and history. And he sits down at an old typewriter to read the notes the day's customers have left behind.

On busy days, there are dozens and dozens of them.

"It's sort of detective work," Gustafson tells NPR's Ari Shapiro. "I read every single note because I'm terrified I'm going to miss something. I can't throw away any of these notes. I've got a filing cabinet of just thousands of pages." Literati's public typewriter is an experiment that started in 2013, when Michael Gustafson and his wife Hilary opened the store, and they've received thousands of anonymous messages since.

And now, Michael — with designer Oliver Uberti — has compiled some of his favorite notes into a book, Notes From a Public Typewriter.

It's a wide-ranging collection.

There are notes about childhood:

When we were younger, we would color our skies purple
Our trees blue, and it always looked perfect to us

On sobriety:

Two days sober
Thrilled about the first
Terrified of the second
Do not have enough money to buy a book
Today
But I am comfortable here
Thank you

And on school:

Monday, August 24, 2014

With every day
School draws nearer.
I don't know whether to be excited
Or nervous
Or totally freaking out
Or sort of okay
Or kinda paranoid.
I guess middle school will be okay,
sort of

And on cats:

Dear Max,

You were a good old cat. I'm sorry I pushed you off the couch sometimes when you wanted to sit on my lap and I was touched out from the babies and my eyes were itching. I'm sorry for the time I cut your skin by accident trying to cut out the mats and didn't realize how bad it was at first. I'm sorry I sometimes let your nails get too long or ran out of wet food and that I let you go an extra day without your sub-Q fluids at the end. There were a lot of opportunities to not take perfect care of you as I had intended, but I hope you felt that those were the rare exception in the six years you were with us. I had a great day with you yesterday and hope you enjoyed some of your favorite things on your last day. It will always be a special memory for me. Please know you were loved and I/we will always remember you.

Love,
Your human mama

"I remember when we got that note and I took the page out of the typewriter and I showed it to staff and we were all just bawling," Michael says. "All of us were just crying. That was one of the first few notes that we got that struck a chord in me that there was something happening here."

The story of the Literati typewriter begins with a 1930s Smith-Corona that Michael inherited from his grandfather. For several years, it resided resided in his Brooklyn apartment — in fact, Hilary remembers the typewriter being there when she first met Michael, and then when they moved in together.

"I was very curious about it," Hilary says. "He used to write his grandmother letters on it — this old, somewhat clunky machine in our tiny Brooklyn apartment." When the couple decided to move back home to Michigan to open a bookstore in Ann Arbor, they decided to base their logo on Grandfather Gustafson's typewriter.

And, on a whim, Michael decided to set one up downstairs — not the precious original, just a regular old typewriter. He envisioned customers stringing out one long story, maybe over decades, with each typist picking up the thread where the last person left off. But instead, something magical — and totally surprising — happened.

The notes started pouring in.

Love letters, poems, quotes, sprawling meditations on life. Notes written over the top of others, single words, perfectly spaced paragraphs. When it's commencement time at the University of Michigan, advice for new graduates fill the pages. When the holiday season approaches, typists leave notes about the family members they wish were still alive to celebrate with. And of course, the occasional fart joke bumps up against a deeply personal confession.

"It's just been a wonderful sort of diary of a town," says Michael, "happening in a bookstore."

This story was produced for radio by Sam Gringlas and Connor Donevan, and adapted for the Web by Sam Gringlas and Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Five years ago, a husband and wife opened a bookstore in Ann Arbor, Mich. Michael and Hilary Gustafson called it Literati. And, almost on a whim, they did something that would make them famous in the town.

MICHAEL GUSTAFSON: We based our logo on my grandfather's Smith Corona. And we thought, well, wouldn't it be fun to put out a typewriter that anybody could use.

SHAPIRO: And people did use it.

M. GUSTAFSON: They would type confessions and jokes and even marriage proposals on this typewriter. And over the years, thousands of people have typed these notes. And it's just been a wonderful sort of diary of a town happening in a bookstore.

SHAPIRO: Each night, after he locks up the doors, closes out the cash registers and re-shelves stray books, Michael Gustafson stops by the typewriter one last time. He pulls out the page, reads the messages left behind and files them away before he heads out. And now he has published some of his favorites in a new book called "Notes From A Public Typewriter." When we talk to the Gustafsons we spent some time flipping through the book reading a handful of those anonymous messages.

OK, let's take turns. You go first.

M. GUSTAFSON: (Reading) When we were younger, we would color our skies purple, our trees blue. And it always looked perfect to us.

SHAPIRO: Hilary.

HILARY GUSTAFSON: (Reading) Two days sober - thrilled about the first, terrified of the second. Do not have enough money to buy a book today, but I am comfortable here. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Wow. (Reading) If I had to write a five-paragraph essay on this thing, I would withdraw from middle school.

(LAUGHTER)

H. GUSTAFSON: (Reading) Dear Max, you are a good old cat. I'm sorry I pushed you off the couch sometimes when you wanted to sit in my lap, and I was touched out from the babies, and my eyes were itching. I'm sorry for the time I cut your skin by accident trying to cut out the mats and didn't realize how bad it was at first. I'm sorry I sometimes let your nails get too long or ran out of wet food and that I let you go an extra day without your sub-Q fluids at the end. There are a lot of opportunities to not take perfect care of you as I had intended. But I hope you felt that those were the rare exception in the six years you were with us. I had a great day with you yesterday and hope you enjoyed some of your favorite things on your last day. It will always be a special memory for me. Please know you were loved. And I - we will always remember you, love your human mama.

M. GUSTAFSON: I remember when we got that note. And I took the page out at the typewriter, and I showed it to staff. And we're all just bawling. All of us were just crying. And that was one of the first few notes that we got that really struck a chord in me that there was something happening here.

SHAPIRO: You have selected some really lovely, funny, heartbreaking, insightful messages. How much of what you get on the typewriter is that? And how much is (laughter) not that?

M. GUSTAFSON: There is a lot of not that.

SHAPIRO: OK.

H. GUSTAFSON: Lots of fart jokes.

M. GUSTAFSON: Lots of fart jokes.

(LAUGHTER)

M. GUSTAFSON: Sure, yeah. We have to sift through maybe 200 notes to find that one note that really just makes you laugh out loud or acts like a gut punch. But once you find that note, you instantly recognize it. It's very authentic. It's very true. It's not trying to impress.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about how the messages change depending on the time of year or the time of day or the day of the week.

H. GUSTAFSON: Yeah, I think it's interesting. You know, it's a university town, Ann Arbor. And University of Michigan is here. And when graduation rolls around, we get lots of advice for graduates from newly graduated or from parents visiting - things like that. And then I feel like also around kind of the holidays we get a lot of people who write notes to loved ones who have passed, and people are looking back and remembering those people that meant a lot to them.

M. GUSTAFSON: And on Michigan-Ohio State football game days, we get a lot of Ohio State fans saying go, Bucks.

SHAPIRO: Well, Hilary and Michael Gustafson, it's been great talking with you. Thank you.

H. GUSTAFSON: It's been so wonderful talking to you. Thank you so much.

M. GUSTAFSON: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: They own Literati bookstore in Ann Arbor, Mich. And Michael is the author of the new book "Notes From A Public Typewriter," written with the designer Oliver Uberti. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.