Townie Tales: Richard Retyi's "The Book of Ann Arbor" at Literati


Richard Retyi by Melanie Maxwell

Richard Retyi features all the stories fit for print (from his podcast) in his new collection, The Book of Ann Arbor: An Extremely Serious History Book. Photo by Melanie Maxwell.

On Dec. 7 at Literati, Richard Retyi read from his new book, The Book of Ann Arbor: An Extremely Serious History, which tells 41 townie tales in a humorous, accessible fashion.

But Retyi didn't originally set out to write a book. His project began as a podcast, Ann Arbor Stories, which Retyi produces with Brian Peters in partnership with the Ann Arbor District Library. (Retyi recently became the marketing and communications manager at AADL.) The podcast was modeled after another audio show, Memory Palace.

“Creepier than creepy. Worse than bad.” --Rich Retyi, "It’s Lovely to Die Together" Retyi shared with us the story that he described as “the most messed-up story in the book.” In “It’s Lovely to Die Together” he told us about two mysterious young women behaving strangely on the corner of State and Liberty. Retyi’s haunting reading, thematically matched and timed perfectly to the music that played in the background, successfully communicated the what-is-going-on-with-these-strange-girls mood of the story itself.

In the end, the young women didn’t quite die together, though they did give it an honest effort having wrapped themselves up in white wrapping paper and set themselves on fire. After that not-so-happy story, Retyi talked about his book’s origin story, but not before showing us a 7-Up commercial featuring the Canadian hockey great Wayne Gretzky. (Retyi -- a native Canadian who has been in the Ann Arbor area since around 2004 -- did not allow us to forget that he’s a Canadian throughout the night. In fact, he alluded to this bit of personal bit history in his presentation wherever it would fit.) The Book of Ann Arbor: An Extremely Serious History

One of four early storefront theaters downtown, The Star -- "cool and comfortable" -- featured Vaudeville acts in addition to five-cent films. It was the site of a famous 1908 riot when more than a thousand U-M students stormed, looted, and sacked the theater. Hear the riot tale on episode 18 of the Ann Arbor Stories podcast or read about it in The Book of Ann Arbor. Photo via, courtesy Bentley Historical Library.

There was a podcast idea that preceded Ann Arbor Stories called Ann Arbor Tales. Retyi had planned to interview Ann Arbor experts about their topics of interest, but he found the process to be overwhelming. It was easier for him to use local history information compiled by the Ann Arbor District Library to come up with a list of interesting topics and use the Old News archives to dig into the research. Developing, researching, and reading the stories himself turned out to be a better fit.

“He played like drunks walk, and sang like a man who did a shot of hot sauce each morning, a shot of bleach each night, and smoked 1,000 cigarettes in between.” --Rich Retyi, "The Ballad of Shakey Jake"

Retyi then led into “The Ballad of Shakey Jake.” Saginaw-raised Jake Woods, who became known enough in town to eventually sell Shakey Jake merchandise, first played in Ann Arbor in 1973 as a part of the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival. Because of -- or despite -- his unique, follow-no-rules style, the festival audience embraced him. After the performance, Shakey Jake allegedly said, “I ain’t never goin’ back to Saginaw.”

At the end of the reading, Retyi fielded questions from the audience and was asked what he got out of storytelling. He said it's the stories themselves that interest him the most before diving into a handful of Ann Arbor mini-tales that had taken place in the bookstore’s immediate vicinity. His arms took off as he gestured here and there, his spray of words telling us quickly about a riot that took place at the Star Theatre and that we were sitting in the middle of what had not long ago been the town’s red-light district. He pointed out that you can still walk among the places where these events happened and even somehow feel a part of Ann Arbor’s 200 years of weird history.

➥ "Fifth Avenue Press launches nine titles with a book release party" (Pulp interview with Retyi and other Fifth Avenue Press authors)

Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at

If you are an AADL cardholder, you can download The Book of Ann Arbor: An Extremely Serious History and all the other titles published by Fifth Avenue Press. Print copies are also available to check-out or are available to purchase from a variety of local and national bookstores. Visit for more information.