SALT LAKE CITY — Forty years ago, Betsy Burton was renting a room in what would soon become The King's English Bookshop. She was writing what she calls, "in retrospect, a really bad novel" and had talked her friend Ann Berman into renting the room next to her so they could have coffee "when we should have been writing."
Burton said in an interview with the Deseret News that back in the late ’70s, typical bookstores just had books on shelves and people browsed on their feet, but she and Berman thought Salt Lake City lacked the kind of bookstore that was filled with chairs where people could sit around and talk about books.
So they decided to use their rented space to open a bookstore with that kind of community atmosphere. They thought they would write their novels in the back room and come out when the bell tinkled.
Little did they know "the book business is a lot more complicated than one would think," Burton said. "We quickly found that we had to learn a lot more about business than we knew, and we totally fell in love."
Berman left shortly after, in 1980, but The King's English, the store she helped co-found, has managed to thrive ever since. It survived the arrival of dominating book chains in the ’90s and the onset of Amazon with ebooks and audiobooks to now celebrate its 40th birthday on Sept. 10, with events being held on Saturday, Sept. 9.
In fact, Burton said independent bookstores are experiencing a renaissance as large chains such as Barnes and Noble struggle against Amazon's cheap prices and instant gratification.
"People actually like to go browse and turn the pages," Burton said. So, as the chains flounder (with ones such as Borders going under), those who prefer "being able to physically shop" are coming to the independent stores.
Benefit to the economy
It was in the ’90s when big chains threatened the existence of independent bookstores such as The King's English (or the Shop Around the Corner in "You've Got Mail") that Burton decided to turn her focus to the community.
"We knew we wouldn't survive without our community, that that was what would keep us going," she said.
She also knew that chains, and Amazon when it came along later, were taking money outside the state and ultimately hurting the economy.
"We started to get studies done that proved this," Burton said. "In Salt Lake, four to five times as much money stays if you spend it local as it does when you spend it in a chain."
With these numbers as backup, Burton has tried to educate the community about the importance of shopping locally.
"We never said, 'Never shop at Amazon,'" she said. "We said, 'Think before you spend. Make your decisions thoughtful.'"
Customer and community focus
Where The King's English can't match Amazon in price, it has sought to offer what big companies cannot. For example, the store brings in hundreds of authors a year, both nationally and locally based, to speak and sign books at the store and in local schools.
The store has also tried to be flexible with the changing times, offering online orders as well as ebooks and audiobooks on its website. The King's English even has free delivery for residents of Salt Lake County, provided especially for those who are homebound or for schools and offices. Burton's special-needs son, Nicks, and his caregiver, Ricky Hoffman, are the delivery team.
"People are happy when they see them coming," said Anne Holman, Burton's current co-owner and the store's general manager.
While the store doesn't focus on having every book on its shelves, Holman said she can order a book and have it the next day if a customer wants it. The store also provides donations such as gift cards for local fundraisers and auctions. It is through this kind of customer service that The King's English differentiates itself.
"We want customers when they come in to feel like they've been invited into somebody's living room," Burton said. "We really reach out to our customers and try to make them as happy as we possibly can."
Contribution to the book industry
The staff also works hard to stay up to date on all the new books to be able to offer educated recommendations to any customer and "match books to people." They work closely with publishing houses to get the books that will be the best fit for their store, and often it is independent booksellers like those at The King's English who discover the next biggest authors.
Burton received an early manuscript of Anthony Doerr's "All the Light We Cannot See," which went on to win the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
"I was blown away," she said. "So not only did I tell everybody here, but I called other booksellers and said, 'You've got to read this book right now.'"
By the time advanced copies were released, an excitement had been built in the close-knit booksellers community.
"Everyone knew it was going to be a best-seller because so many booksellers loved it," Burton said. "That's the role independent bookstores play in the book industry. Amazon and the chains — they're very good at selling what everybody knows, but we're the ones who find the new books."
Importance of owning
For Burton, a large part of The King's English's success is that it grew organically. After her landlord wouldn't stop hitting on her, she said, she decided to buy the building she had been renting for the bookstore, which allowed her to expand into every room. A little while later, she bought the gas station next door, which became the children's room. She's benefited so much from owning the store that it's what she recommends for any small business.
"You have to be able to own the building, because if you don't, our margins are so small that we'd never be able to afford the rent," Holman said. "Owning this building has allowed us to be OK in the lean times and provide insurance to our employees."
Burton said when she started, the neighborhood wasn't very prosperous, but as the bookstore attracted customers, other stores and restaurants and eventually chains moved in — then the rent skyrocketed.
"What made this (area) charming was all the local businesses, and over time it becomes less charming and the chains move and you're in this cycle of disrepair," Burton said.
She feels so strongly about ending these cycles that she's worked with the local government to provide a program that will help local business owners buy their buildings, something she thinks will help the economy as a whole.
"When big companies are looking at where to locate, they want a city that has small businesses and a real local feel to it because that's where their employees want to live," she said. "It's not just a little feel-good thing; it's actually very important for our economy."
Vision for the future
As she's watched chains come and go over the decades, making The King's English one has never been a goal for Burton.
"The reason we're so good at creating that family atmosphere is we really do know our customers. We talk to them constantly, and it's part of why they love us," she said. "If we started to create that kind of chain, you're spread too thin and you don't know your customers as well, and I think you start to lose some of the charm that is inherently local. So I think we're the perfect size."
At 70 years old and just finishing her term as president of the American Booksellers Association, Burton has basically let Holman run the store for the last few years, and they both hope to pass the running of The King's English on to the next generation. They already have several generations of customers who love them.
"When we talk over time to people about books, in some ways you get to know them better than even your really close friends," Burton said. "We now have three and even starting four generations of people who came in very young when I was starting the store who then grew up and had kids, who then grew up and had kids — it's pretty amazing."
The King's English has created such a close community that on 9/11, the store was mobbed with people, not because they wanted to buy books, but because they wanted the reassurance of their community.
"We really are a happy family here," Burton said.
Celebration events include:
11 a.m. Reading and signing by local author Jean Reagan from her new picture book "How to Get Your Teacher Ready"
12 p.m. Pup Parade with special guest the Poky Little Puppy
2 p.m. Opportunity to meet Dan Hanna, illustrator of "The Pout-Pout Fish and the Bully-Bully Shark"
4 p.m. Reading of entries to the Creative Arts Contest and awarding of prizes. Find out more about the contest at kingsenglish.com.
6 p.m. Local author Gabriel Tallent will read and sign his highly anticipated debut novel "My Absolute Darling."
If you go
What: The King's English 40th birthday celebration
When: Saturday, Sept. 9, 10 a.m.
Where: The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East
Note: Customers can save 25 percent on everything in The King's English bookshop on Sept. 9.