The King’s English
Adventures of an Independent Bookseller
By Betsy Burton
Layton, Utah: Gibbs, 2005
Hard back: ISBN: 1586856871 Price: $24.95
This episodic history of Betsy Burton’s bookstore, the King’s English, reflects the recent story of independent bookselling. Burton and her first partner, Ann Berman, opened the shop in 1977, fueled by an enthusiasm for good literature and a dream of creating a hangout for book lovers in Salt Lake City. Neither partner knew much about running a business, but over time they learn how to negotiate with sales reps, stock inventories, assess and shape the reading tastes of their customers, and thwart the pilfering hands of larcenous employees. When a passion for books is no longer enough to make ends meet, they face the challenges bedeviling all independent booksellers: computerization and the Internet; chain stores and publishing monopolies; and the perennial bugaboo of civilization, censorship. At the King’s English, censorship evolved from objections over feminist literature in the 1970s to the Patriot Act in the 2000s. There are also the challenges unique to running a bookstore so near the headquarters of the Mormon Church. When Jon Krakauer comes to speak about his book on Mormon fundamentalism, Burton finds herself working with a private detective, the local vice squad, and a martial arts expert to provide security. She wonders where the line is between satisfying the wants of customers and squelching free speech.
The most entertaining parts of the book are anecdotes about famous and not-yet-famous authors who stop by the King’s English on their book tours. Isabel Allende is as colorful and passionate in person as her novels suggest, even during Utah’s winters, and British mystery writer John Mortimer endures a series of miscalculations with the aplomb of his defining literary character, barrister Horace Rumpole. There are even author signings where nobody shows up.
Burton doesn’t shy from self-examination. She ruefully notes that she lost a series of business partners due to personal differences and has failed often as a manager. Her candor balances the book’s frequently informal and praise-laden prose.
And then come the lists. Burton assembles eighteen lists of recommendations of books published or sold by the shop. The lists range from the expected “25 Favorite Young Adult Books,” to those showing the spirit of independent booksellers—“25 Thrillers with Moral Heft.” The appendix offers advice from other booksellers around the country. Many readers may find good recommendations in these lists, but I found them ultimately overwhelming. Is Burton competing against Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust?
The King’s English caught my eye because of its polished packaging and good page design, and anyone passionate about independent bookstores should read this story. It suggests there’s hope for the independent spirit in the twenty-first century.