Log on to Amazon.com and you’ll read: “Hello First Name Last Name. We have recommendations for you.”
And so they do. Cookies track every title you’ve ever glanced at, so Amazon can offer other books that fit your “profile.”
Betsy Burton does much the same thing, but keeps her knowledge about the reading habits of hundreds of customers inside her head. Moreover, any book she recommends will be well written, a standard cookies just can’t live up to. Burton is co-founder and co-owner of the fiercely independent and quaintly cozy bookshop at 15th East and 15th South. Her delightful book, The King’s English [Adventures of an Independent Bookseller], which shares the name of her store and describes her many exploits in the trade, has just been published by Gibbs Smith. A celebration is planned tonight at the shop (on the patio, weather permitting).
Ken Sanders—whose Ken Sanders Rare Books will also host a reading, on May 10—has known Burton since the 1970s, “when Barnes & Noble was B. Dalton and Borders was called Waldenbooks,” he said ruefully. He can tick off the host of small Salt Lake City bookshops that have closed over the years as the chains grew ever more powerful: Sanders’ own Cosmic Aeroplane, The Open Book, The Waking Owl, A Woman’s Place, Black & White Books, Round Records and Bound Books, Whole Earth, Amelia’s and many more. “Betsy is a survivor. She’s tenacious. Praise her,” said Sanders. “I know how hard a thing it is to do.”
When Burton and Ann Berman started the store in 1977 they were both just divorced with kids to rear and, probably foolishly, thought the space they rented to write in—Burton confesses to working on a bad novel at the time—was the perfect spot for a bookstore. “We could write in the back room and put bells on the door so we’d know when customers came in. Why don’t we do it?” Burton recalls asking.
They decided to order books by authors they loved—all the books, “not just the ones everybody knows about.” All of Graham Greene, all of Anthony Trollope, the standards, the classics, lesser-known novels by well-known authors. And they agreed to draw the line at Danielle Steele.
They put up shelves, created nooks to sit in, offered tea and coffee. There was even a “shop cat” beloved by customers as well as by Burton. Agatha lived in the store for 23 years. Her death made the Deseret News—complete with color photo—and was covered by Fox 13 News. The King’s English held a wake. Burton’s chapter in her book on Agatha, sadly, was “excised” by an editor from the first draft.
The store began luring good writers to give readings, and Burton has some wonderfully funny moments to share—like the night she had Isabel Allende to dinner, and the celebrated author and her new husband had to fillet the salmon and cook the couscous. Allende said to Burton, in a careful tone, “I think perhaps a little flame under the pot would help to boil the water.” There are stories about Mark Strand, Judith Freeman, John Irving, Olive Ghiselin, Ivan Doig, E.L. Doctorow, Mark Spragg, Sherman Alexie and more, not all complimentary. The chapter on Rumpole author John Mortimer’s visit to Utah is a laugh-out-loud excursion.
As the store grew, so did Burton’s self-described stubbornness. Berman left the business; Barbara Hoagland became a partner. Others would follow. And leave. But it was Burton’s feisty side, too, that kept the business going despite competition from the big chains. “It’s do or die,” she wrote of the book business.
Sanders agrees: “There are too few of us left. Independent bookshops in cities around the country, both new and used, are becomingrelics of the past.… Many cities have only chain bookshops left.Count your riches. Frequent us as often as your pocketbooks can stand.”
BETSY BURTON Reading and signing: The King’s English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Thursday April 28, 7 p.m. 484-9100