Innovation and Uniqueness

We often talk about books having voices but seldom talk about stores having voices. And The King’s English definitely has a voice. Its inventory, though small is thoughtfully chosen and the result is a store that speaks ardently of its love of fine literature and of good books of every kind. It is, in fact, an exquisitely curated store.
Ron Smith, Random House

It is easy to see why [The King’s English] has developed so great a reputation among writers and why it continues to flourish.
Mark Strand, Pulitzer-Prize winning past Poet Laureate

Don’t miss this endearing and funny book [The King’s English] about books, about loyal readers, perseverant sellers, crazy authors, and the whole magical process of independent bookselling. If you are a reader you will absolutely love this book.

Isabel Allende

There are other bookstores whose owners have written books about this beset and bewitching business, but Betsy Burton’s, The King’s English, Adventures of an Independent Bookseller, not only sold over 10,000 copies but is both an insightful and accurate look at independent bookselling, and proof positive that The King’s English is unique. Why? Because we don’t believe there are many stores as small as we are predicated on a passion for books in quite the same way.

What’s wonderful about us independents is the insistence on difference that is so deeply embedded in our characters—an insistence clearly expressed in the various alternatives we each find for attacking similar problems, exemplifying similar ideals and values. The King’s English is small, nimble, highly focused on good books to the exclusion of almost all else. We use sidelines to feature books; we talk about, write about, and review books in person, by blog, Facebook, Twitter, radio and newspaper on a daily basis; we not only host but honor writers, whether they be national or local; and in our 1800 square feet of selling space we shelve an incredible inventory.

New customers are always stunned when they enter what they believe to be a tiny old house and it turns out to be nine rooms and thousands of books! Our children’s room is the old corner gas station; Anne and Margaret’s office is the old men’s bathroom and our marketing staff is housed in an old closet. Fortunately, we are able to use the art gallery a couple of doors down from us for large events and, when the weather is nice, we have a lovely patio for medium-sized events, book clubs, etc. Otherwise in-store events would be impossible in a shop like ours. Since the building is a hundred years old and has dirt for a foundation, we can’t easily add on, so we are what we are: less than 2000 square feet of selling space, a quirky, idiosyncratic, literary inventory, and some of the most well-read, friendly, passionate booksellers alive in the world today.

When we did add on to our original 900 square feet, which we did several times over the years, we grew organically. We didn’t take out large loans to add space and inventory because times were good. Rather, we added to our size and inventory as we expanded our knowledge and experience—and only as our sales expanded in volume. We added staff as slowly as space, trying never to live beyond on means in terms of payroll costs, and hiring carefully, yet paying fair wages and offering health insurance benefits. We now generate close to a million and a half dollars in sales, making us pint-sized by most standards, but placing us exactly in that sweet spot that according to ABA researchers is the best place for actually making a profit in this industry.

Speaking of profits, the smartest financial decision Betsy made was to buy the building in 1978. The restaurant attached to the back of TKE has been a prosperous tenant and has paid the rent over the years, allowing the bookstore to survive in lean times, including the onslaught of the chains and the current recession. We’ve never experienced the threat of being priced out of our neighborhood or ejected when a lease became due. And as high rents have threatened more and more stores across the nation, Burton has used her Local First clout to propose to the city an innovative program in which city government and local banks, in conjunction with the SBA, would create a new category of low-interest loan which would help businesses buy their buildings when they are starting out, before their success has caused prices to rise beyond their means. The mayor is interested, the city council is interested, and we are all convinced this is a program that’s going to happen.

Innovation in matters pertaining to local and to community have always been at the forefront of our attention at The King’s English. Betsy has been one of the leaders in the local movement since its inception, helping to start what to our knowledge was the second business alliance in the country (Boulder’s Independent Business Alliance was the first) and co-founding and co-chairing the largest such group, Local First Utah. She’s also been at the forefront of the movement nationally, not just serving on national boards (first BALLE, now AMIBA) but campaigning vociferously for the ABA to join in and then fostering that union as more and more booksellers became involved. That passion for local is evident in every part of the store and sets us apart as one of a kind. And the local programs and campaigns that our store and Betsy herself have pioneered have been a model for bookstores nationwide.

A similar passion for reader privacy and first amendment rights is likewise evident in the store and support of literacy is part of its daily life. The King’s English plays an active important role in the national bookselling community as well; Betsy presently serves on the board of the ABA although this doesn’t make her unique among independent booksellers—far from it; most of us are deeply engaged in our industry—both at home in our stores, and nationally through our trade association.

For a store our size, our event schedule and the quality of the authors we attract is remarkable. Writers come precisely because of our passion and enthusiasm, and the community in turn comes out in force to meet those authors, to listen to them read and speak, and to perhaps get a chance to visit with them. We foster local authors as well, giving them time, space, publicity, helping to create audiences for their work both here and nationally.

Aside from being a gathering place for our local community, we are in a real sense the heart of our literary community—an important heart in a city as riven as ours—a place where people can come together on the common ground of good books. Despite whatever proclivity for innovation we may have shown over the years as we’ve grown and as we’ve developed strategies to cope with various challenges, we’ve always been a “steady as she goes” sort of bookstore. From day one we’ve had implicit faith in books, the writers and publishers who produce them, the readers who devour them. That faith has stood us in good stead for over three decades; we expect it to do so for many more.