Face Out: ABA President Betsy Burton on Her Life Among Books

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Betsy Burton is the co-founder and co-owner of The King’s English Bookshop (TKE) in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the author of The King’s English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller (Gibbs Smith). She is currently in the first year of a two-year term as president of the American Booksellers Association.

Bookselling This Week: Please tell us about your early experiences with reading and books.

Betsy Burton: My earliest memory of reading is from the fall I turned five. I’d been wildly excited about our new TV, having just spent a delirious evening with Sky King and The Lone Ranger, when I came down with scarlet fever. Quarantined in my bedroom I could hear the heady cry “Hi ho, Silver, away,” but couldn’t see the masked man on his big white horse. I was inconsolable. Until my aunt started reading to me. Oh, my parents had read to us all, but there was something about being huddled up next to my favorite aunt, watching the words as I heard them, that was far headier than anything Roy Rogers or Dale Evans could say or do. Drawn in first by the illustrations of rearing stallions and sturdy ponies at the chapter headings, I was more and more taken by the stories themselves, leaping from word to word with my aunt’s voice until, like magic, I was reading with her. Addicted, I began my childhood career of night-reading under the sheets by the glow of a flashlight, and by the time my aunt left I had made my way through The Black Stallion series, Misty of Chincoteague, and was deep into Smokey the Cow Horse (recognize a theme here?). Her parting gift was a Nancy Drew, which I credit with forming my lifelong love of mysteries — not to mention bolstering my self-reliance. I never looked back — or slept very much.

BTW: Did you hold other positions in the book industry before becoming a bookseller?

BB: No — I worked as a writer/researcher in an ad agency and not only wasn’t very good at it, I hated it. I tried to write a book and didn’t do that very well either, but concluded I was interested in a life involving words, whatever my skills.

BTW: How did you begin as a bookseller? What led you to establish your own store?

BB: These two (beginning as a bookseller and starting my own store) occurred simultaneously and totally by accident. Aside from working for Sam Weller’s as a backroom clerk for a few months in college, I’d had no experience in bookstores. A friend and I were renting side-by-side rooms in a quaint old shop that had been converted into offices, both working on (in retrospect) exceedingly bad novels. One day, while talking in order to put off the act of writing, we began conjuring the perfect bookstore — one with chairs in each room, a place where browsing was encouraged, and talking about books would be part of the fun for everyone, booksellers and customers alike. We’d serve coffee and tea and stock not all books but those we knew would appeal to our customers — our friends, whose tastes we already knew (in our dream state we weren’t yet concerned about a broad customer base), and we could work on our novels in the back room, coming out when the bell on the door tinkled. It sounded so easy that we decided to give it a try (in the most extreme case of writing avoidance I can think of). We opened an account, each put in a few thousand dollars, and ordered stock by reading Books in Print (the author volumes — it took the better part of a summer), filling out 3x5 cards with the titles we wanted, organizing them by publisher in a shoebox we used for inventory control for years, and then typing up purchase orders. We hired a carpenter to build shelves in our offices, rented a third room for children’s books, and the deed was done. It wasn’t long before we discovered that it wasn’t in the least bit easy to run a bookstore, but by then we’d both fallen madly in love with bookselling. I’m still in love with it — how could any of us not be?

BTW: When did you first become a member of ABA? What motivated you to join?

BB: We joined our local regional association about a year after we opened and quickly discovered that hanging out with other booksellers was as interesting and entertaining as talking books with customers. Besides, the more time we spent with them, the more we discovered we didn’t know about the book business. Looking back to our initial state of blissful ignorance, I’m still not sorry we did our first order by reading Books in Print, since it made our inventory idiosyncratic. But most of the other things I learned from my fellow booksellers back then were useful, time-saving, and, in the end, necessary strategies for survival. Involvement in ABA seemed natural after that, and the education it offered became as necessary a part of running our store as reading the books we sold. We were ZingTrained and returns-trained, we learned (and relearned) the 2% Solution, attended Rep Picks and were Buzzed by Editors, got the chance to dine with authors…  And best of all, was the amazing constellation of bookstores — so many spectacular or quaint or thoughtful or activist stores (or all of the above), and so many brilliant, thoughtful, kind, generous, knowledgeable people all buying books, talking books, selling books, keeping their books in a professional manner, running book and author events like impresarios, uniting their communities around books and the idea of local, and changing the ways everyone thought. It was a world I never wanted to leave and it gave new meaning to the profession I already adored.

BTW: What do you think are some of the most important changes in bookselling since you opened your store?

BB: Education and the local movement. When we opened TKE back in 1977, bookselling was easy: Local stores each had their own niche, the only chains were B. Dalton and Walden’s, and making payroll just wasn’t that hard. Then the big chains came to town and those two things — the education, which made us competitive against stores that carried everything, discounted everything, and got preferential treatment from the government, the public, and publishers alike (which, of course, made it possible to discount everything), along with the local message, which educated the public and government (and, finally, publishers as the movement took hold) about the importance of local business to our economy and our community — became the twin strategies of our survival. I’m happy to say they’ve worked — which is why our survival has turned into our revival. Our Indie Renaissance.

BTW: What are your key goals as an ABA Board member for fostering the book industry, and bookselling in particular?

BB: An ever-closer partnership among booksellers, publishers, and authors. As we face the threat from an Internet monopoly (or perhaps monopsony is a more accurate word), it is in all of our best interests to understand each other better since our mutual goal is to get books into the hands of readers. I believe that in order for any of us to survive, we must all survive. Consequently, we’d better understand one another’s piece of this business we all love — and foster those programs that, because books and authors are at their heart, are good for all of us: Indies Introduce, which not only showcases our ability to discover new authors, but also gives great new authors a chance at instant recognition, thus benefitting booksellers, publishers, and author alike; Indies First, which showcases us to our communities, highlights authors and creates partnerships with them (linking their websites to ours as well as putting them in our stores for a day) and with publishers who are creating fantastic promotions to encourage sales; the Indie Next List, which is, of course, at the center of our book programs; and, finally, our new backlist initiative, which I am wildly enthusiastic about. I’ve thought for years about the books we loved to distraction now languishing on our shelves selling one or two copies a year. We all have. Our ABA Board believes that what no one store can do alone, we, collectively, are going to do together: sell more backlist — to the joy of publishers, authors, and booksellers. I should add one more thing here — broader support for the American Booksellers for Free Expression, which protects our right to read.

BTW: What are you reading now?

BB: I’m wild about The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, William Boyd’s Sweet Caress, and The Witches by Stacy Schiff. I love and will continue to sell Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night, and in terms of the future I was dazzled by Tuesdays in 1980 (an Indies Introduce pick, I’m thrilled to say) by Molly Prentiss and also loved Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by former TKE bookseller Mona Awad(!!), and Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta. Right now, I’m rereading The Secret History of Wonder Woman for a book club presentation (what a book!) and still looking for a mystery to love. Suggestions welcome, but no serial killers, please. I don’t mind gore, but if you’ve seen one serial killer, you’ve seen them all (metaphorically speaking).

BTW: You get a day to walk through any city, town, or landscape with any one writer. What writer and what place?

BB: Any one writer? That’s not fair. I’ve imagined myself traipsing across wet meadows with Jane Austen for more years than I care to say, I’ve ridden through the mountains of the West with A.B. Gutherie and Ivan Doig, sat quietly on back porches with Willa Cather and Kent Haruf, swooned over the sheer inventive audacity of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie, watched the world turn with E.L. Doctorow, Hilary Mantel, Shirley Hazzard, and John le Carré (not to mention Bryan Stevenson), watched it end with Margaret Atwood (laughing while I cried) and (over and over again) Kate Atkinson. How to choose?

I guess in the end I’d opt for John le Carré. His profound grasp of the Cold War so brilliantly reflected our politics and our sensibilities, and his grasp of our present world and its currents of conflict seems every bit as prescient. As a writer, he’s superb in every way. As to cities, towns, and landscapes, again, impossible to choose. Berlin? Moscow? Hamburg, London? Bonn, Hong Kong, Panama? Refugee camps in the Middle East? In Africa? Le Carré’s landscape is the world, but I guess a windy walk with him atop the cliffs of Cornwall followed by a shot of whiskey in a pub while I listen to him talk about that world would be about as good as it gets.