The woman browsed through a table of scattered postcards on sale at Cosmic Aeroplane Bookstore Tuesday afternoon.
Up above, 1920s music spilled from the speakers. Below, her 11-month-old boy yanked books, one by one, off the bottom shelf. Out in front, the sign said the sale "is the end.""I hate to see this place go," said the woman.
But as of Wednesday evening, Cosmic Aeroplane, 258 E. 100 South, Salt Lake City's most famous "alternative" bookstore, will be no more. Out of business. Finito. Another refrain of independent bookstore blues.
Owner Bruce Roberts didn't want to talk about it with the Deseret News but did offer a quip from one of the former owners: "We're no different than the Titanic. It just took us longer to sink."
Unlike with the Titanic, though, the cause of Cosmic Aeroplane's unfortunate fate isn't as readily apparent.
Was it because of bad business practices? Profound changes in society? Too much competition? A combination of the above? Or something else?
Whatever the cause, the slow death has been painful for Aeroplane passengers.
Carolyn Person, a 10-year customer thumbing through a hardback on sale for 50 cents, said she was "very sad" to see the bookstore's closing.
"This place has been an environment of visual satisfaction and literary delight," she said, searching for just the right words. "One of my happiest Christmases was when my brother and sister-in-law gave me a $50 gift certificate to the Cosmic Aeroplane . . .
"And the people - I've met the strangest and most wonderful people here." Like the time she got a free fortune-telling from a psychic she encountered in used books.Indeed, Cosmic Aeroplane, a subversive-looking store in a conservative community, has always been a melting pot of "strange and wonderful" people. Hippies. Anti-establishment types. Poets. Disenchanted students. Anti-war protesters. Conscientious objectors. Gay-rights activists. Marxists. Liberals. Environmentalists. Feminists. Free spirits.
Basically, said former employee Jose Knighton, if you were counterculture or on the cutting edge of social reform, you found intellectual shelter at Cosmic Aeroplane.
"It was a haven for liberalism," said Knighton, who helped navigate the Aeroplane from 1977 to 1989.
The haven had humble beginnings, in a decrepit building across from the Union Pacific Building. That's where, in 1967, Stephen Jones, a University of Utah dropout from Nantucket, N.Y., started a small underground business he dubbed Cosmic Aeroplane, a name that is supposed to suggest adventure and travel in the mind. The store was primarily a "head shop" and "draft counseling center" that also sold books.
Jones eventually moved to two other locations before settling in at 258 E. 100 South, where in the mid-1970s, the business took off with the introduction of two new partners, Roberts and Ken Sanders, whose capital and expertise helped the store exceed $1 million in sales one year.
At one time, the store boasted the best science fiction selection in Utah, the only metaphysics section, the best place to find folk and alternative music and the best outlet for the best poetry.
Its strength also lay in political science and history books. "We sold everything from Hunter Thompson to the writings of Chairman Mao," Knighton said.
But in the 1980s, Roberts ventured out on his own, using profits to buy out his two partners and start a bookstore in St. George, which ended in failure.
As a result, the Aeroplane's inventory decreased, forcing customers to flee to Cosmic competitors, some of whom were former employees like Knighton, who owns his own bookstore now in Moab.Comment on this story
"The books were disappearing. . . . We ran out of `The Monkey Wrench Gang,' " said Knighton of the late Edward Abbey's classic environmental novel. "We should have never run out of that book."
Knighton, however, believes the Aeroplane's problems are more fundamental than bad business.
"The demise of the counterculture took the heart out of the bookstore. Everybody's turning into yuppies and their kids are growing up to be Republicans."
Is Knighton sad to see the Aeroplane go?
"Yeah, just like I would be sad to see someone bulldoze the Statue of Liberty. But we evolve," he said, waxing philosophic. "Nothing lasts forever."