By Alan Madeleine
Greg Kowalski is one busy guy.
He not only has a full-time job in West Bloomfield’s city hall, he is also chairman of the Hamtramck’s Historic Commission and Director of the city’s Historical Museum.
On top of all that, he has been chronicling Hamtramck’s history in book form for the last several years. He now has is 12th book out for sale. It focuses on the city’s bars, which goes back decades.
There is no shortage of colorful characters who have frequented Hamtramck’s famous – and infamous – watering holes.
The new book is called “They Drank to That: Bars, Beer and the Beat of Hamtramck.” Now that’s a title we could raise a drink to.
We recently caught up with Kowalski to talk about his past books and his new one.
The Review: How many books have you published now, total?
The Review: What are some of the other titles?
Kowalski: Let’s just say there are nine on Hamtramck and two on Detroit. A few of the titles are “Hamtramck: The Driven City,” “Wicked Hamtramck,” and “Detroit’s Masonic Temple.”
The Review: What year(s) did those come out?
Kowalski: “The Driven City” came out in 2002. That was the first. I’ve been averaging a book about every 18 months since then.
The Review: What was the exact date that this one came out, as close as you can get?
Kowalski: This new one came out about Dec. 6, 2017.
The Review: Did you have any type of a book-release celebration?
Kowalski: Not really, but I do a variety of book signings. Some locally and some in the metro area. Locally, I’ve been at the Polish Art Center and Hamtramck Public Library.
I’ve also done signings at Sam’s Club, Barnes & Noble, and Borders, when they were still in business. I was going to do one for this book, but unfortunately had to cancel due to illness. We’re going to reschedule.
We will eventually do something at the (Hamtramck Historical) museum, but right now we are preoccupied with building renovations there, so we have put programs temporarily on hold.
The Review: Have you used this same publisher before?
Kowalski: All my books are either published by Arcadia Publishing, or else The History Press or Fronthill Press, which are subsidiaries of Arcadia. Arcadia specializes in publishing local history books across the country.
The Review: How did you initially connect to them?
Kowalski: I had heard about Arcadia from someone who did a book for them. I sent them a letter of inquiry and they sent me a book proposal form, which I filled out and sent back.
They liked the idea. That was for “The Driven City.” The book was published, and then picked by the State of Michigan as one of the must-read books of the year.
Since then, I’ve been sending the publishers a regular stream of proposals. All have been accepted and published.
The Review: I assume you remember Rolling Stone magazine proclaiming Hamtramck as one of the up-and-coming American cities or neighborhoods about ten-ish years ago. Did that happen, in your mind?
Kowalski: I don’t specifically remember that, but Hamtramck had developed a national reputation for its bar scene. It was a real center, especially known for places like Lili’s and Paychecks.
But Hamtramck’s association with bars was legendary long before the rock era. During Prohibition, Hamtramck was awash in speakeasies, and afterward the city ended up with hundreds of bars within its two square mile area.
There is a long association between Hamtramck and its bars. I wanted to cover all of that, so my book traces these bars all the way back to the 1890s. But, folks who are nostalgic for the bars they used to haunt in Hamtramck will likely find them in this book too.
The Review: What might the bars or the bar scene have actually had to do with this new interest in this city?
Kowalski: Bars are still a big part of the city’s entertainment scene, and were the sources of the old Hamtramck Blowout music festival as well as the current music festivals in the city.
Those are signs of life, of a real vitality that brings people here to town, so their popularity certainly helps present the impression that Hamtramck is an up-and-coming town, despite its age and relatively low income level.
The Review: Was it more fun researching the book, or writing the book, or both equally?
Kowalski: I absolutely love researching and writing the books. Hamtramck is an endlessly fascinating city. I do historical research constantly for the museum, and I am continuously amazed at the things I find out. For decades, Hamtramck turned its back on its own history.
I have systematically been turning that back around, by delving into every aspect of the city’s history, good and bad, and presenting it to the public in my books, Review articles, other articles — I have one coming out this year in Michigan History magazine on the Great Train Accident of 1942 — and at the Museum. I’ve learned so much.
The Review: Follow-up to publication: Any positive notices, or reviews, worth mentioning? Sales going okay?
Kowalski: Sales are doing well. I haven’t gotten much feedback on the book yet, but it’s early.
The Review: Where and how are all the ways one can acquire a copy? Also, is the book available on different media, for example on CD, streaming or as an e-book?
Kowalski: My books are available at the Hamtramck Museum, at Barnes & Noble, The Polish Art Center, Sam’s Club, Costco, Pure Detroit, Amazon and even on eBay. I think they are also at the Detroit Institute of Arts and Historical Museum. Some are also available as ebooks through the publisher, but I’m not sure all are.
The Review: Any other recommended books on the subject especially? Or should one just follow your bibliography at the end of the book?
Kowalski: If you like the new book, you may also like “Prohibition in Hamtramck” and “Wicked Hamtramck.” They are closely related, but do cover plenty of different areas.