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- Courtesy Photo
- Betsy Burton welcomes a new generation of booksellers
Betsy Burton on running The King's English through the pandemic and her decision to retire.
By Scott Renshaw
This summer, Betsy Burton retired from and sold The King's English Bookshop after more than 40 years in operation. She was generous enough to respond via email about the store's history, and her future plans.
City Weekly: Did the challenges of the past 18 months ultimately convince you that now was the right time to retire?
Betsy Burton: I was already thinking of retiring—was well past 70 and looking for someone to buy in—when COVID raged into our lives and suddenly all we could think of at TKE was survival.
Many of us chose to stay home because they or family members were at high risk, and we closed our doors to the public. Those of us who felt safe going in with masks found ourselves working in a new environment—a book warehouse.
We took orders by internet and phone, our customers were amazingly steadfast, and we scraped by for several months. But business slowly dwindled, and survival became a real issue.
In August, things were desperate enough that we sent out a plea to our customers—at which point we received so many internet orders, we were completely inundated. Our customers' loyalty literally saved us. (Although, the sheer volume of their orders nearly killed us, too. Not that we're complaining!)
We're open again, thank God, and business is nearly back to normal. Oh, we still wear masks, we keep the doors open and the fans going, our events are mostly virtual, but The King's English Bookshop feels much like its old self again.
And to (finally) answer your question, this experience, as bracing as it was, signaled to me that it was truly time to retire. However necessary, I didn't like life as a warehouse worker. And the digital world is one I've entered only unwillingly. A new generation can do the work of the book business far more gracefully than I. So, the decision was a relief.
How did you get into bookselling in the first place?
A friend and I were renting the two rooms which are now the fiction and poetry rooms and working on bad novels. To put off the work at hand, we started dreaming about opening a bookstore with chairs and little rooms where we would serve tea and encourage browsing and talking about books. It seemed like such a good idea, we did it.
Best TKE memories you'll take with you?
One of the early ones was buying the building. Our landlord kept asking me out—I didn't want to go, but by then, my partner and I were so in love with the store that I didn't know what to do. So, I mortgaged my house and bought the building. Extreme, but it turned out to be a good business decision. In the '90s when the chains came and gobbled everything up so that rents skyrocketed, ours didn't. And to think I did it to get out of a date!
Chief among my memories are the years spent talking about books with customers, colleagues and fellow booksellers. And, of course, the events: midnight Harry Potter parties, writers from E.L. Doctorow to Margaret Atwood, Ivan Doig to Kent Haruf, Abraham Verghese to Isabel Allende, Anthony Doerr to Richard Powers. Just writing their names is an incantation of magic.
The online era has radically changed the marketplace for books. Why do independent bookstores remain important?
We've learned to participate in the online marketplace, and after a rocky start, we're up and running effectively. I believe any business needs to do both to be successful in today's world.
But it's the physical bookshop and the books and booksellers inside it that matter. The carefully selected inventory and the staff—all passionate about books, knowledgeable, in love with our customers and each other—make TKE what it is. We are a community, and very much a part of our greater community. On 9/11, we were swarmed—not with people in search of books but with people who needed a place to find others to talk to. To find solace. Community.
How did your customers and staff make it possible to keep going during COVID?
I already answered this question above, but I'd like to add my gratitude to our customers everywhere. I will never forget that outpouring of support, people offering money, emailing, calling, donating monthly until we were back on our feet! I knew people loved the store but had no idea of the depth of their feelings. When I talk about it, I start crying.
And the staff. Tireless, dedicated in ways I couldn't begin to describe. What became clear to me, if I hadn't already known it, is that this isn't my store at all. It is their store.
What's next for you as you change gears?
The good news is, I've found someone wonderful to buy my share of the store. Calvin Crosby is experienced, kind, knowledgeable, literary, creative. What's more, he's a joy to be around! So, I can rest easy on that front. And I do enjoy putting words on a page, so I think I'll write another book. Not about the bookstore this time, that I do know. But for now, that's all I know. I'll continue editing The Inkslinger (the store's quarterly newsletter). That's my baby, and I'm not ready to give it up. But otherwise, what I most want is time just to be. And to read, of course.