Oliver Uberti

Case Study: Literati Bookstore

Selections from my work for Literati Bookstore



Literati Bookstore

Hilary and Michael Gustafson are the perfect example of why I love helping small businesses. They're kind people with a vision for their community, and they put everything on the line to pursue it. When I first met them in April 2013, they were looking for a sign. I had an idea.


the sign


Much of my work begins with a pen and paper. The sign for Literati was no different. I remember sitting upstairs at Zingerman’s one evening with a coffee and a cosmic cake. I had just come from the corner of Fourth and Washington, where I’d stood like a creep, staring at the then-signless bookstore. “What does that building need?”

Coffee downed and cosmic cake devoured, I scribbled a vision onto this sheet of paper. The bookstore’s logo was a typewriter. What if we spelled out L-I-T-E-R-A-T-I with typewriter keys?

For a great account of the sign's construction, see Steve Gilzow's piece in the Ann Arbor Observer.


Oliver listened to what we wanted: nothing too flashy or too big; something in line with the scale; something in line with our aesthetic. Previously we went through numerous designs, and none of them seemed right. Oliver got it on the first try.
— Hilary Gustafson



Next, it was time to tackle the bookstore’s Fourth Avenue façade. Without signage, you’d have no idea it was part of Literati. I suggested a three-part plan: branded awnings, hand-painted lettering on the bay window, and a mural.

Murals are usually pictures. I wanted to paint words—specifically, words written by the community on Literati’s public typewriter. First, I digitized the font from Michael’s grandfather’s Smith Corona—smudgy e’s, q’s, and all. Then I made a scale model of the brick wall and arranged fifteen of our favorite notes in staggered rows (above).

After months of planning, I was finally ready to paint. Before I could start on the lettering, I had to tape off the selected bricks and prime them white. People kept asking what the white bricks were. I said, “Come back in a few days,” but that only stoked curiosity. More than one person looked at the white rows and said, “Oh, I know. Pixels!”

This used to be sixty feet of nothing. People walked by every day, heads aimed straight ahead or down at their phones. Now those heads turn. You can’t not read words.




I like design solutions that answer questions. In this case, Hilary and Michael were wondering how to: 1) notify customers of an event; 2) notify them of future events; 3) do so in a single sign that didn’t have to be re-written daily.

Immediately, a baseball lineup came to mind: there’s one batter batting and an order of batters to follow. Same goes for a calendar of author readings. So I set to work on a sign with seven slots, one for the featured event and six for future events. Over time, chalkboard slats would move up the sign until it was their turn to bat, so to speak.

Originally hung in the stairwell, the sign now resides on the cafe’s “Author Wall.” All authors who speak at Literati are invited to scrawl musings or advice on the wall around this sign.




The Espresso Bar is now Literati Coffee, so these menus are no more. Still, I’m proud of the process. As I did with the mural, I scanned lettering typed on Michael’s grandfather’s typewriter. Then to arrange the menu and to center the text for the second sign, I set up a monospaced grid in Photoshop. The final signs were printed on banners with pole pockets, so they could hang from the ceiling like big sheets of typewriter paper. You know, variations on a theme.




Ever since Literati Bookstore opened, there's been a typewriter on their lower level for anyone to use. Thousands have. Customers, friends, and family began encouraging Michael to turn those typewritten notes into a book. I was champing at the bit to design it. Thanks to the enthusiasm of our agents and editor, such a book now exists.

When I think back to when I first saw the Literati typewriter in 2013, one image sticks in mind: the little strips of paper that Michael had cut out and taped to a “wall of fame.” To me, that is the soul of this book because that is Michael—reading every note, cutting out those words by hand. The covers of most books about typewriters show the typewriter. In designing the cover for ours, I wanted to emphasize the notes, not the machine.