Rebel Bookseller and The King’s English

Betsy Burton, author of The King’s English, has been a co-owner of The King’s English (TKE) in Salt Lake City since the 1970s. The author of Rebel Bookseller, Andrew Laties, has been at the helm of  The Children’s Bookstore and The Children’s Museum Store, both in Chicago, and, lastly, a bookstore attached to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, in Amherst, Massachusetts. In these two quasi-memoirs, both authors closely interweave their professional experiences with insights and advice for novice and prospective booksellers, while promoting independent bookstores as guardians of free speech, free enterprise, and local community.

The King’s English, read a year ago, fueled my budding passion to become a bookseller. Rubbing shoulders with books and book people, meeting authors and illustrators, bringing people together through literature … what a life! However, Burton also dished out a heavy dose of realism, presenting the challenges of bookselling in today’s market and the personal commitment required to run a business, particularly a bookstore: keeping accounts, managing employees, carrying a constant burden of debt, late nights, long days, strains on family life … Reading Rebel Bookseller a year later–six months into my own very modest endeavor–affirmed these impressions.

Laties, like Burton, also chronicles the history of book selling in America during the last quarter of the 20th century, focusing particularly on the  impact of chain stores on both the publishing book selling industries. His copious end notes provide further analysis and quotes regarding the economics of the book industry.  I found much of his book selling advice, however, to be self-evident: Listen to your customers, think creatively, be your own best marketing consultant (don’t waste money on professionals), stand firm in the fight against the corporations, and don’t  lose heart–independents will survive. “Showcasing Your Store,” the appendix to the revised and updated edition of Rebel Booksellver, contained the most helpful concrete information for booksellers, with specific advice, numbers, percentages, and how-to details.

Laties is not a bad story teller, but Burton’s gift for narrative makes The King’s English a truly engaging read. Even readers who aren’t dreaming of  opening a bookstore will be drawn in by her descriptions of near-disastrous (but laughable) dinner parties with authors, book signing nightmares, the dismal failure of TKE’s anti-theft devices … (Why is it that catastrophes make the most memorable stories?) There are also happy endings, like the success of their poetry reading series in partnership with the University of Utah, encounters with and repeat visits from gracious authors, and the  (literally) last-minute acquisition of copies of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire that prevented TKE from selling out on release day.

On the practical side, Burton’s numerous book lists alone are a valuable reference tool: 25 Novels that Stood the Test of Time and Stand Out Still; Unforgivably Strange, Relentlessly Cynical, Unforgettably Good Novels; 25 Thrillers with Moral Heft; 35 Favorite Poetry Books; 25 Western Fiction Title Grounded in Place … to name just a few. Burton also offers helpful details on the path of a book from author to publisher to sales rep to bookseller. She discuss details like co-op money (advertising allowances that publishers give to booksellers), remainders, and returns. She crunches the numbers that demonstrate why independents are struggling in the current market.

As a feminist and a bookseller in the largely conservative climate of Salt Lake City, Burton is in a prime position to discuss censorship and the current conservative-liberal political tension in America. Her views on these subjects are most concentrated in the chapter titled “Keepers at the Gate” and “A Sense of Place.” I do not share all of Burton’s views, but I appreciate her candor and her attempts at diplomacy. (Her editor, she mentions, was Mormon.)

Both books are recommended reading for would-be book sellers, but avid readers of all stripes would enjoy The King’s English for Burton’s engaging voice and the book’s glimpses into the contemporary world of books, authors, publishers, and book selling.

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