Totem Books: Adding a Chapter to Downtown Flint


Photos by Bella Biafore

The smell of fresh brewed coffee and old books fill my nose, soft music plays in the background and a cozy atmosphere surrounds me; Totem Books already feels like home. Off the beaten path, nestled on the corner of Ann Arbor Street and West Court Street, colorful murals wrap around  the building and give off a welcoming energy.

This past Black Friday, Totem celebrated their three year anniversary. From books and vinyl records to coffee and healthy food options, Totem isn’t your average bookstore.

Front of house and Operating Manager Tyler Bailey describes Totem as “simply pure magic,” notably for its old school ambiance.

“I have the best memory of the first time walking in here,” said Bailey. “Etta James [was] playing and the sunlight fell right through the skylights. I found this awesome Sylvia Plath book I was looking for and it was just this really great serendipitous moment of ‘oh, I feel so comfortable here.’”

The collection of old and new books for sale inside Totem come from donations, store credit and libraries closing down or having sales. The artwork in the building, although not for sale, comes from Owner Dean Yeotis’ personal collection.   

The murals outside the store were created by artists from Australia, Brazil, England and the United States. Totem hopes to promote creativity and collaboration with these murals as well as draw bookworms and coffee lovers in.

Yeotis’ vision for the bookstore was to be a place with a much less daunting atmosphere than that of a bar or restaurant. Instead, a space where knowledge lives and conversations are started; for people to come, look for a book, eat some good food, meet some new people–the list goes on.

From Drag Queen bingo to children’s story time every Saturday, the bookstore curates an experience for everyone and is always open to hosting events. For Totem, creating an atmosphere where anyone feels welcome to walk through the door is top priority.

“We’re very open to the wants or needs of our customers, whether they are first-timers or regulars. Sometimes people just need a space for their book club or they want to have an event here,” said Bailey. “We’re gonna start doing story slams and reaching out to people to collaborate. A big focus we have is on collaboration with local business in the Flint area.”

Before Totem, there was a party store in its place. Not adding much to the landscape, Yeotis revamped the building and generated a business that also doubles as a community resource. Even residents outside of Flint, from places like Fenton and Saginaw, have made it a point to stop in during the week to get their fix of books and coffee, and to say hi to the friendly staff.

Like most cities, Flint is home to all different kinds of people. For Bailey, the best part about Totem is everyone he meets every day and the connections that are made through the store.

“There [are] so many small opportunities you have to make an impact. Whether it’s on someone’s day, on their business, on their night out or even really long-term impacts. That’s my favorite part of the world–connecting [to] someone else,” said Bailey. “I so often call myself the ‘social concierge’ here.”  

With there being a bountiful selection of books in-store, there are tons of genres that live within the shelves. People of many different interests can come into the store and find what they’re looking for while enjoying a cup of coffee or a bite to eat while they do it.

“I kind of get the jump on a little bit of your personality when you’re browsing through the bookstore. If you’re in certain genres it gets me to know about your personality, what you’re interested in. Are you into young adult? Are you into history? Are you into memoirs? Kind of get the jump on what’s going on there,” said Bailey.

There are two other members of the Totem tribe, as Bailey likes to call them. Brigette Enle, who is the mastermind behind the menu of the cafe, and Carlos Avilla, who is Bailey’s counterpart, doing the back-house maintenance.

“There’s something subtle but beautiful about us coming from different parts of the city, from different life experiences and at face value, may look very different, but to each be three cogs that keep this place going,” said Bailey. “I think by practicing that to every customer that walks in these places and have them say ‘they look differently than me and they’re happy here’ or ‘they’re the same as me and they’re happy here’ then this place might be good.”

If you’re looking to kick back and enjoy a good book or some coffee, Totem could be your next perfect hangout spot. For more information, visit their website or Facebook.