Steamboat Springs Betsy Burton thinks all independent businesses contribute to a community, but she'd like to think that mom-and-pop bookstores play a special role.
"I can remember when 9/11 happened, everybody in our community came into our store to talk about it and cry to each other," Burton said. "Bookstores really are community centers."
Burton owns The King's English, a bookstore in Salt Lake City, Utah, and recently published a book of the same name. She was in Steamboat Springs last week to read from the book and talk about the changes affecting her industry.
"The King's English" is organized into chapters that alternate between Burton's recollections of hosting famous authors at her store, and her observations about running an independent bookstore. Interspersed among the chapters are recommended reading lists. They come from a variety of sources, including other independent bookstores such as Steamboat Springs' own Off the Beaten Path Bookstore, which hosted her visit here.
Burton's thesis that independent bookstores contribute to a sense of community dovetails with the theme for Steamboat Springs Economic Summit 2005, to be held May 18 and 19 (see related story).
Organizer Noreen Moore said people relocating to Steamboat increasingly are seeking to become part of a community that shares their values. Moore is convinced that residents of Steamboat are not fully aware of how the pace of this migration will influence the community as they know it.
Internet booksellers such as Amazon and the large chains are rewriting the book selling landscape, but Burton is confident that the role of the surviving independents is more secure than it was five years ago.
"When (the chains) first came to Salt Lake City, it was horrible," Burton said. We had to fight just to stay alive. But two to three years ago, I think we saw a sea change in our community. All but two or three of the independent book stores had closed. People started to realize they were losing their community to anonymous businesses, and they started to care. I think we've seen a tipping point in my city."
Burton said the mass merchandising by the chains disguises the fact that they have driven up the price of books, made it more difficult for publishers to sell their press run at retail and diminished opportunities for new authors to get published.
Burton's store and Off the Beaten Path belong to an association of independents called the Mountains and Plains booksellers Association, which is affiliated with the larger American Booksellers Association. It markets and advocates on behalf of independent booksellers.
The associations have allowed individual stores to counteract the chains by selling gift cards that are good at affiliated stores across the country.
Burton said selling books to customers one knows is an art.
"The art of being a good book-seller is not recommending what you like to read," she said. "You have to listen to the customer."
She hopes that consumers from Salt Lake to Steamboat will go to independents to practice that art the next time they purchase a book.
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