In 1977, Betsy Burton co-founded The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City. Burton, the president of the American Booksellers Association, wrote a book about life owning and running her modestly sized, well-loved indie bookstore entitled The King’s English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller. Here, she talks about odd and obscure titles, accidentally locking an author’s belongings in her mom’s car, and 38 years of bookselling.
What is The King’s English Bookshop famous for?
I’m not sure how famous we are, but our readers love our ability to match books to people—easy since we know so many of our customers. But when we don’t, we take the time to ask them what they’ve loved so we can hand them a book they’ll actually like. This goes two ways: I’ve heard about some of my favorite odd and obscure titles from customers. The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, The Summer at Gaglow, Prince of the Clouds, Not Wanted on the Voyage, The Frozen Thames….
People also like our physical space (eight small rooms packed with books) and our quarterly newsletter, The Inkslinger,which we take communal pride in writing. I love doing weekly NPR reviews, too, principally because I love trying to catch the essence of a book in a brief paragraph or page (although I struggle with the brief part).
If The King’s English were a religion, what would be its icons and tenets?
Our icons? Authors whose books we’ve loved, among them: Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Bishop, Eudora Welty, Anthony Powell, Willa Cather, Robertson Davies, E.L. Doctorow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Muriel Spark, William Trevor, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Shirley Hazzard, Mark Strand, T.H. White, Rohinton Mistry, Jeanette Haien, David Malouf, Wendell Berry, Sebastian Barry, Cynthia Ozick, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Louise Erdrich, John Le Carré, Abraham Verghese, Vikram Seth, Anne Tyler, Sherman Alexie, Kate Atkinson, Kent Haruf, Jim Crace, Melanie Rae Thon, Chang-Rae Lee, Terry Tempest Williams, Bryan Stevenson, Anthony Doerr, Harriet Doerr, Margaret Wise Brown….
Our tenets as booksellers? Find good books and pass them on to those who are likely to like them; think of this as passing on the Holy Grail; think of customers as guests in your living room; never say you’ve read a book unless you have; read at least 50 pages before rejecting a book someone you respect has liked; think locally, buy locally, and love your community; never ever let the passion for your favorite books wane—there are always new readers who will love them as much as you do. But do reread those books from time to time to make sure your passion was not mere infatuation.
Which was your favorite event and why?
My favorite event hands down was hosting Sir John Mortimer. When I locked his suitcases in the trunk of my mom’s car (which I had borrowed to impress him) and then couldn’t figure out how to open it, instead of getting mad, he laughed. Uproariously. “The boot of Mum’s car?” he chortled over and over. He made us laugh all day long—not just then, but over lunch, through drinks, over dinner, through more drinks (he did love champagne), throughout his presentation. Needless to say, the audience loved him.
How has bookselling changed since you first co-founded The King’s English?
Bookselling was easier in the old days—as long as you read good books, cleaned the bathroom, counted the money (it was actually money back then), hosted the occasional event, and knew how to buy intelligently, life was good. The chains made us up our game, involve our community, and pull more of them into our store. We doubled down on events, learning to publicize them effectively (much cheaper than advertising), and now we’re impresarios as well as booksellers. I can’t imagine a better life.
What are some of your top current handsells?
Some of our top current handsells include: Our Souls at Night, All the Light We Cannot See, Sweet Caress, Between You and Me, Did You Ever Have a Family, The Plover, Last Bus to Wisdom, Just Mercy, Norwegian by Night, Station Eleven.
Your ideal busman’s holiday?
My ideal busman’s holiday? Visiting independent bookstores, of course.Karen Schechner is the senior Indie editor.