The King’s English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller

Gibbs Smith, 2005

Reviewed by Jim Lawless

Betsy Burton started a book store in the same way that people start restaurants or write novels or begin a family: without a clue. She had only a love for books and a sense that she could pair people with the perfect read.

In 1977, with $6,000 and an ample supply of enthusiasm and humor, she and a friend, who, like Burton, was a novelist and single mother, opened shop in Salt Lake City. She was so naïve in overestimating their success, Burton says, that she suggested hanging bells on the front door to announce the arrival of customers.

The King’s English pulled in just $40 a day during its first year, but with surprising luck and lots of imagination, it survived a wide range of adversaries: censorship, big-box stores, the Internet, sticky-fingered employees, little pay, and unending hours.

The King’s English is the story of all those problems, but even more compelling are Burton’s anecdotes involving established authors. Out of necessity, she became a master of promotion, luring to her out-of-the-way store such well-known writers as E.L. Doctorow, Sue Grafton, John Mortimer, Mark Strand, and Tony Hellerman.

John Irving and Isabel Allende, in fact, probably saved the store with their unexpected popularity and remarkable ability to draw the public to readings. “We were not prepared for Isabel’s joyous, bawdy humor, nor for the way she courted the audience, wooed and conquered them as if they were lovers,” Burton writes.

Irving, if possible, was even more magnetic, writes Burton. The World According to Garp had just been published, yet little was known about it or him. Still, the book’s reviews were great, and Irving was the friend of a local poet. Customers at his reading quickly gobbled 100-plus books. In relaying the scene with the “hunky” author, Burton writes: “About 500 women surround him, gather, hover, perch near him, touch his arms, stick close to him.” It was a phenomenon unlike anything she’d ever seen—“all of these women gushing, blinking, unable to say anything.” But her favorite part of the John Irving-comes-to-Salt Lake City story was the rumor that ensued: mainly, that Irving was seen sneaking away from Burton’s house late at night. No one, she said, wanted to wreck such a good story and “free advertising.”

Burton tells her tales well and with humor—selling books all the while. Lists of books close each chapter, weaving in favorite fiction, mystery, poetry, nonfiction, western, and children’s titles from the store’s first 25 years with more unusual lists such as “25 Thrillers with Moral Heft.”

For 27 years, as hundreds of independent stores were driven out of business, The Kings’ English has survived. And while Burton gives much of the credit to her underpaid and incredibly hard-working staff, one can’t overlook her own devotion to old fashioned, person-to-person bookselling.

Jim Lawless is a journalist and poet in Cleveland.

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