Once upon a time, two book lovers shared one vision: to establish a bookstore that provides an open space for people to read, discover, and be inspired. And Reader … they did it. The visually appealing, independently-owned Totem Books is a bright spot amid the chaos of everyday life – “a safe haven,” as general manager, Teresa Chase, describes it.
The store opened in November, 2015. The building had housed a party store for more than two decades before local attorney, Dean Yeotis, snatched it up and turned it into Totem Books in an effort to improve the neighborhood.
“I love books,” smiles Yeotis. “And I began thinking about what was missing in our community.” Yeotis, who is also the owner of Found Sound, a record store in Ferndale, saw a bookstore and café as a viable business model for the community. And Yeotis wasn’t the only one.
Teresa Chase showed up – according to her – through “divine providence” and began helping with the project. “I thought how great that somebody would take a risk and open a bookstore in Downtown Flint,” expresses Teresa, who has worked in retail management for over 30 years. “I really felt that I could help.”
Through a fiery exchanging of ideas, Teresa and Yeotis knew that their vision would soon come to fruition. “We share the same values,” he adds. “We’re very community-oriented and open-minded. We want to help transform Flint in positive ways.”
Part of the duo’s vision was creating a specific atmosphere. In the store, funky jazz plays over the speakers, blending with the chatter of book and music enthusiasts and the whirring of the coffee grinder. And the artwork – which Yeotis found in galleries and at garage sales – greets you from the walls and bookshelves; the memorabilia on display, including matches, school pennants and photos, is a gentle nod to the local history. And for those who appreciate the smell of books – that unique, comforting scent still lingers on your skin after you leave the store.
“People have a conception of what Flint is like, or what it should be like, and what a business here needs to be,” says Yeotis. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s all about perspective. If a place like Totem Books appears in Flint, people may start to see Flint as a city that needs more places like it. “First, we wanted to create a space that somebody would appreciate on an aesthetic level,” Yeotis explains. “And we wanted to offer the types of books that could help introduce people to book culture. We believe in the power of a book to transform individual lives.”
The name of the establishment, which works on two different levels, comes from Yeotis’ fascination with the Native Americans that had a settlement near the Flint River. He emulated their belief in totems – or sacred objects – as a way to frame the bookstore’s purpose. Totems are defined as something meaningful to a group of people; and in this case, not only are these totems for sale, the objects are meaningful to the community, and represent the richness that can be found on a dusty (for aesthetic purposes only) bookshelf.
Totem Books also sells vinyl record albums. Much to Yeotis’ and Teresa’s surprise, Totem began offering these records to Flint’s vinyl-listening subculture, and they are currently the top-selling item. The store also sells CDs, comic books and miscellaneous treasures for the soul; notepads and other ephemera, and for the stomach, the café serves house-made organic, vegetarian and vegan products. “We wanted to offer a clean, healthy menu at a great price,” Teresa shares. Guests can enjoy their fresh-ground coffee, or even Italian or French soda, while browsing the stacks or lounging on a collection of comfy couches and chairs.
“In this technological age, what’s missing is a community gathering place,” says Yeotis. “We can exchange ideas here, and make connections that reinforce community.” The store has had a few live music performances and poetry readings, and they are also working to establish regular book club discussions. “You can lose yourself for a while,” Teresa says. To their patrons, “it’s a lot more than just a bookstore.”
The gently-used books that come in as donations, trades, or that are purchased by Totem for resale, are carefully handpicked and purposefully displayed amongst the wooden shelves. “The idea is that someone can come in and find a book that they didn’t know they were looking for, or some music that they didn’t know existed, and it can somehow positively impact their life,” Yeotis adds.
Coming from many different cities, the books create an astonishing variety – from children’s picture books and cookbooks, to an antiquarian section that will take you back to another time. “The book is like the spoon, scissors, hammer, and the wheel; once invented, it cannot be improved upon,” Yeotis says. “While people might appreciate the portability of an e-book, I don’t think they are going to love an e-book. At the end of the day, it’s not going to be beautiful. A real book can be beautiful.”
Transformed from a liquor store into a bookstore, Totem Books is certainly a sacred gem that will make community members stop, look at and listen to all the vitality that is right here in Flint.
My City asked Dean and Teresa which books are meaningful to them:
Dean: “Frankenstein; because it demonstrates man’s inability to control technology and the necessity to reconcile it with our essential humanity; and Huxley’s Brave New World; what is coming to fruition is that people are willing to be enslaved in pleasure pursuits that aren’t consistent with our evolving purpose.”
Teresa: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I find it very metaphoric to what we’re doing here [at Totem Books]. A lot of the metaphors in that book really fit with the fact that we took something that was not much, and created this wonderful space. It’s really fitting to where I am right now and what we’re trying to do.”
Photography by Eric Dutro