Embracing the future: Deseret Book undergoes transition from frontier bookstore to digital innovator

Published: Monday, Dec. 10 2012 6:45 p.m. MST

Sheri Dew speaks during an executive team meeting at Deseret Book in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — More than a century ago, a small bookstore opened its doors on South Temple in Salt Lake City, with hundreds of books arranged neatly on dozens of shelves.

At the time, the bookstore stood on the edge of the frontier, a place where covered wagons rumbled down dusty dirt roads.

Over the years, the bookstore grew, and the valley with it, and soon there were stores across the Wasatch Front, the shelves filled with LDS scriptures, biographies of LDS Church leaders and even Mormon-themed cookbooks.

Eventually, CDs of Gladys Knight and Michael McLean rested alongside those of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the walls held framed photographs of temples as well as artists' depictions of Jesus Christ.

Growth was steady and solid. Then came the digital revolution, which rattled the book publishing and retail world everywhere, leaving some to wonder whether traditional publishing would survive.

Rushing to save the centuries-old brand, the owners tapped a new leader and asked the bookstore to fill an expanded mission. After some introspection and stretching, the organization began a two-part transformation: reinventing the traditional retail and publishing business while also pioneering new digital innovations.

"Deseret Book has been around since 1866. That's not a brand you throw away," said Sheri Dew, Deseret Book's president and CEO, and choreographer of the company's efforts to innovate.

"But it's a challenge for us to transform the legacy while still growing and expanding the digital opportunities associated with the business."

And it continues to be a challenging, changing business, said Len Vlahos, executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, the leading U.S. book trade association for standardized best practices, research and education about publishing.

"There are a lot of people reinventing their businesses, and there's some consolidation certainly, but I think this is as much a time for opportunity as anything else," he said.

The once small frontier bookstore is reveling in the new challenges and opportunities, eagerly pushing forward with its new charge — to reach hundreds of millions of people worldwide with inspiring and encouraging messages in a variety of ways.

"The world is filled with polluted communication of all kinds," says Dew. "Should we sit on our hands or should we say there are other ways to look at and live life? The clearest way to have influence is to communicate in some fashion. The things that go out of this building … change lives."

Embracing technology

Growing up on the wind-swept plains of Kansas, Dew remembers the spring she got the chicken pox and was devastated when she learned she would have to miss almost two weeks of school.

The next day when Dew's mother ran errands, she returned with Dew's very own geography book, purchased from the school.

"I can still picture lying on the couch reading my geography book," Dew says. "It was a great vista into … places around the world that I could barely imagine. I loved it."

Dew's love of books has only grown, but now, instead of filling a bookshelf, she's filling her iPad — a digital trove that's portable, economical and environmentally friendly.

"I miss everything about (physical) books, but I don't buy as many of them anymore," Dew says with a smile. "I'm a middle-aged converted e-book reader and buyer."

And she's not alone.

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