Betsy Burton and staff celebrate decades of fending off competition, surviving change to write own story.
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Betsy Burton and Ann Berman were divorced mothers in Salt Lake City when they met at a friend's house in 1976. The occasion was gardening, Berman recalls, but the topic soon turned to books and writing.
As with most good stories, neither knew that first meeting would result in a conversation with Utah readers and writers that would last 35 years.
As a respite from parenting, and in search of a place to write their own novels, the two "splurged" $55 per month to rent a small office space at 1511 East and 1500 South. The back room was for writing. The northern front housed a small bookshop, The King's English Bookshop, furnished with "fir riser" shelves supplied by Burton's ex-husband, a lumber company owner, with whom she had a "friendly divorce." A bell tied to the door knob would alert them to an entering customer.
"The first year we were so in love with the business we couldn't imagine anything else," Burton remembers.
On the way to 35 • The front door has been replaced several times since the store first opened in 1977. Employees no longer stash the day's profits in a tin box under a bathroom scale. And Berman, who left the store in 1979, has long since moved on.
Like book chapters and the chime of that front-door bell, the founders' memories recall the heady time of taking a risk for something you love.
"Those were the days when women didn't often begin businesses," Berman wrote in an email from her Baltimore home. "So we spoke with booksellers, a lawyer, an accountant, and finally the Small Business Administration waiting for someone to say something we didn't already know."
Some of the business advice Burton and Berman received years ago for example, that their 15th and 15th location would never provide sufficient walk-in traffic seems hard to believe today. But so, too, does the fact that the store will celebrate its 35th anniversary Monday with a sale and readings throughout the week. (See box.)
From Salman Rushdie to Harry Potter and up to the current phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Grey, lots has happened in between, of course. Burton bought the building in 1979 for what she calls "perhaps the single best business decision I ever made." She found a new business partner in Barbara Hoagland in 1987, buying an adjacent gas station to house children's books the same year. When not wringing her hands in worry like most business owners, Burton read books, talked books and lived books.
Writing its own rules • From the hardscrabble days when the store's ordering system consisted of index cards in shoe boxes, to its turbulent years of facing the competition of big-box retailers, The King's English wrote its own rules.
That meant staffing the store with passionate readers, stocking titles for strategic use of space, the same way a gallery curates art. Perhaps most of all, it meant staking a claim to the city's readers and becoming an event location of choice for local and visiting authors. Among the almost 100 employees who've manned the shelves and register, many have gone on to become English professors and writers themselves.
Burton could brag about the day novelist IsabelAllende prepared salmon and couscous at King's English, or the book convention at which Cutting for Stone author Abraham Verghese asked about her special-needs son. Then there's the story of how she wrestled the luggage of British novelist John Mortimer from her rusted car trunk, then corked a bottle of champagne in his Little America Hotel room.
Beyond bragging, Burton as a business woman and book lover likes to extol the future. The store will soon unveil its partnership with the new Kobo e-reader, giving customers access to e-books in the ethos of an independent bookseller.
Burton believes customers want access to books whatever their form.
Although there were times during the 1990s when she worried if King's English would make it through another year, now she's confident that readers want the physical manifestation of a store for their passion.
'On the Edge' • The joy of owning a bookstore, Burton said, rests not just in the power to recommend books, but meeting customers who read better than you do. To know books is to know people.
"I will never forget how on 9/11 our store was packed. People just needed a place to meet and talk," Burton said.
Bookstores are also incubators for the next generation of readers. Burton admonishes adults not to impose "the classics" on their children, but let them read whatever excites them first. "Breed an addiction before all else, and enlightenment will hopefully follow," she said.
For those who grew up with the store, Burton and general manager Anne Holman moved the burgeoning number of young adult titles into the fiction section, renaming it "On the Edge."
"We have teenagers who bought some of their first books in the children's section, but we know they're not children any more," said Holman, a Midwest transplant who worked in corporate compensation before starting work at King's English 12 years ago. "Adults read them, too, so we made them easy for everyone to find."
It's that element of finding and discovery, Hoagland stresses, that gives bookstores their unrivaled role in reading life. "E-books can't host author readings, can't have kids' reading clubs, can't do anything that requires the human touch," she said.
The King's English celebrates 35 years
When • Monday, Sept. 10; events include a day-long sale (merchandise 35 percent off), a birthday cake served in the afternoon, plus a gallery of authors and readings scheduled throughout the anniversary week.
Hours • The story is open daily 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
Where • The King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
Info • Call 801-484-9100 or visit www.kingsenglish.com for more information.