Betsy Burton on Being a Bookseller and More

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Betsy Burton

At this fall's New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association trade show, bookseller Betsy Burton of The King's English in Salt Lake City, Utah, presented an inspiring keynote address that touched on the topics of what it means to be an independent bookseller; the importance of, and the challenges to, free expression today; the necessity of keeping independent businesses alive, and much more. Here, BTW is pleased to present some brief excerpts from her speech, which can be downloaded in its entirety in PDF format.

Betsy Burton on a bookseller's responsibilities:

The characters in the great novels of the world -- and in thousands of lesser novels -- really do come alive to us, and then stay with us, inhabit us. We can hear their voices in our minds. And preoccupied as I've been -- as we all are of late with the war, with Katrina, with the so-called Patriot Act (one of the most un-patriotic act ever passed in this country) -- preoccupied as people in Utah have been by a new state law I'll talk about shortly, it occurred to me that in bookstores and libraries, in a real sense, it is our responsibility, along with that of educators, to make sure all those voices are heard, and to introduce readers to new voices: to Grif's and Lolita's and Garp's and George Smiley's, and Rabbit's, and Lucy Gault's, and those of Oryx and Crake and Midnight's children.

But it is also our job to make sure that none of these voices are silenced by someone who disagrees with what they say -- that Tom Robinson still has his day in court with Atticus Finch as counsel, that Rumpole stills defends the Timpsons at the Old Bailey, that Pierre can still see peace as an alternative to war, and that Medusa, and the madwoman in the attic, can still scream their wrongs to the world. Because all of those voices inform us.

About free expression and the Patriot Act:

One of the reasons I'm proudest of being a bookseller, aside from the fact that I love people who love books, is that all of you have taken such an absolutely patriotic stand on this issue. You believe in freedom of expression. We all do. That belief underlies American patriotism, surely. That people who believe in suppressing civil liberties call themselves patriots never ceases to amaze me.

Which brings me, one more time, back to voices. Voices and the writers who create them are the work of our lifetimes. We all dedicated ourselves to them, one way or another, and we do need to protect them. To do that, we need to create new voices, a new framework for the language of politics so that people can't threaten to still the voices on our shelves or the privacy of the readers who want access to them. We need to say, and to make people hear, that patriotism means protecting freedom and liberty, not removing them; that morality should be defined as caring for the halt and the lame, as the Bible would have it -- the poor, the disabled, the afflicted children and adults on our streets, all those who have nothing. True patriotism is not found in controlling others' thoughts or beliefs or punishing those with whom they don't agree.

About her book, The Kings English, published by Gibbs Smith:

Right now I want to say something about my own story -- the story of a bookstore, The King's English, and of the book business as I've known it for 28 years. The King's English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller is a book about The King's English Bookshop, about its beloved customers, the readers; about its wonderful booksellers, also readers, of course, as in any good independent bookstore, about authors who have visited and, most of all, about books. It is also about independent bookstores everywhere, since we all have the same stories to tell -- and about independent business everywhere.....

I'm happy to say that, thanks in large part to the wonderful booksellers at TKE, we did some things right, too, the chief of which is maintain a passion for the books on our shelves, for the ones our customers tell us about, and for that fine art that we so love -- the art of matching books to people that is the chief goal of any good bookseller. Despite the anecdotes, however, the underlying theme of the book isn't funny at all. That theme is the danger independent bookstores are in -- thanks to the pandering to chains that has gone on in publishing and in our community governments -- and the effect the loss of independent bookstores would have if we all disappeared, which, by the way, none of us are about to do.

On the importance of business alliances:

I want to talk to you for a few minutes about Business Alliances in general and Local First in particular, because along with Book Sense, such movements and organizations offer the single best tool for fighting the onslaught of chains and dot-coms, and for maintaining a retail landscape, whether in books or drugs or hardware, where there are choices.

Seven year ago, when six Salt Lake City business owners marched into the offices of city government intent on changing zoning ordinances that were onerous and intent on challenging other obstacles to business that seemed capricious in terms of both concept and enforcement, we pointed out the unfairness of putting one roadblock after another in the way of independent, locally owned businesses while using our tax dollars to give one perk after another to developers who were bringing in chains to compete with us.

We quickly attracted other locally owned independent businesses and formed an organization, The Salt Lake Vest Pocket Business Alliance, which grew from six to 60 members in the first meeting, to 260 in the first year. We had an effect, too, hosting Mayoral and City Council debates at which candidates were forced to discuss the issues we brought up, and forced to take public positions on those issues. The results were picked up by radio stations, reported in newspapers, and, in the end, candidates we backed won city hall -- not just or even largely because of us, of course, but we helped. Things began to change in city government. Zoning regulations were looked at from a different perspective, bureaucracy was tamed a bit, and a new business council was formed that gave us a more equal voice in city government -- more importantly, that put us in the loop at the beginning of decisions regarding proposed development, rather than at the end, when it was too late to take effective action.

On community and retail chains:

There's a growing swell of yearning for community and in that yearning I believe there are the seeds for a powerful movement, seeds sometimes fed by the anger being directed toward big box retailers and developers, but, actually, primarily fueled by the yearning that lies beneath the anger. People do want community. They want to be able to walk into a store where they know the proprietor, the staff, the quality of the merchandise, the commitment to quality of the business. They want to see their friends and neighbors there. They've discovered that bigger isn't necessarily better, that friendliness, a smaller and higher quality selection, along with knowledgeable service, may, in fact, be infinitely preferable to big. They've also discovered they're beginning to miss not just this connection and warmth, but also the uniqueness and diversity that gave their communities fabric and texture. Many people no longer like the strip-malled environments in which they now live. They want community back.