Saturday, November 21, 2009

Review: The King's English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller

The King's English
Title:  The King's English:  Adventures of an Independent Bookseller

Author:  Betsy Burton

Publisher:  Gibbs Smith

# of Pages:  301 (including appendices)

Favorite Line:
But the real source of authorial star power is that reading a brilliant novel can be exactly like falling in love, *is* falling in love.  Falling into a book, reveling in its language, recognizing its truth, reading on and on in a state of absolute rapture, unable to pull yourself away from the story... 

Plot Summary:
In 1977, Betsy Burton and her good friend decided to give up trying to be authors and try to sell other people's books instead.  They opened up a small bookstore, The King's English, in Salt Lake City, cheerfully unaware of the difficulties associating with bookselling or running a small business.  Over the past forty years, Betsy has been the focal point of The King's English, surviving with the store through different partners, ups and downs in the economy, various political influences and the interesting dichotomy of Mormons and non-Mormons reading in Salt Lake City.  She shares vignettes and gems in her book- stories about author visits, about the struggles of running a bookstore, about the happiness of matching the right book with the right person, and her strong and vivid belief that the world would be a sad place without independent booksellers.

First off, this is a beautiful book.  I know we are told not to judge a book by its cover, but some covers are just so pretty I want to buy them to display on my shelf.  I have a hardcover version of The King's English, and it's lovely.  It is almost square in shape, it has wide margins on the pages, the pages are made of very fine material, and there are several pictures in the book.  Clearly, this was written by and then published by people who really love books, which is fabulous.

The content is pretty good, too.  I wouldn't really call it a memoir because much of the book isn't just about Burton and her trials and triumphs in independent bookselling.  There are stories about bookselling, yes, but those were not the ones I found compelling.  Burton jumps around a lot in her narrative- saying "More on that later" or "This is a story for another book," or "X, by the way, is someone I met Y years ago and...."  It's very conversational and stream-of-consciousness, but in a way I sometimes found distracting.  A timeline of events relating to The King's English would have been helpful; then, I'd know who she was talking about more often than not.

But luckily, much of Burton's narrative is comprised of stories about authors and literary notables- stories about building relationships, sharing important moments, and impacting people's lives.  Those are what really bring this book to life.  Authors that you glance at on the shelf and might not give a second glance- they are given prime space in this book, their books gushed over.  I have added both Walter Satterthwaite and E. L. Doctorow to my books to look for list based solely on Burton's descriptions of the authors themselves.  I have also considered looking into some poets, particularly Mark Strand (who now lives in Chicago, it appears).  The only thing I noticed is that Burton is full of praise for the authors she likes; however, she never names any that she does not like, just saying "will remain anonymous," or speaking in general terms.  This is probably polite and good business sense on her part, but it makes it seem a little fake to me, as though certain authors asked to be included in her book and presented positively, so she complied.  I think I'm reading into things, though.

In addition to these wonderfully insightful looks into the private lives of some amazing writers, Burton provides, at the end of each chapter, several suggested reading lists.  They cover moods, ages, genres, fiction & non-fiction, famous authors and obscure ones, in-print books and out-of-print ones.  They're amazing.  The book is worth getting your hands on, if only for the sake of the lists, so that you can troll bookstores and libraries for as yet undiscovered-by-you authors.

And that's really where Burton shines.  She says countless times that over and above everything else, she is a bookseller.  She truly believes that "Putting the right book in the right hands at the right time can actually change lives."  Any reader can tell you that's true.  Burton's most powerful and passionate chapter in the story is not about how difficult it is to make a profit in bookselling, or how diva-like some authors can be, or how precarious walking the line of religion in Salt Lake City is.  It's the chapter on the importance of independent bookstores that really rings true.  She explains the bookselling system and explains why chain stores will hurt us.

I am not a huge fan of big box stores, but for much of this book I was a little tired of Burton's holier-than-though, anti-corporate, anti-establishment stance on things.  However, the chapter on independent bookstores made me change my mind.  It's important and imperative that they stay in business.  Big box stores hurt the publishing companies, and they in turn stifle new and different talent in the ranks of writers.  This is really sad, especially when I think of all the authors out there who really believe in their books, trying to be published.  Or, when I think of the authors whose books I've loved, but who are not able to write the stories they want any more because publishers are terrified that those stories won't sell well.

People are willing to pay a premium for the products they deem worthy of higher value.  That's why the people who shop at farmers' markets tend to spend much more on groceries than those who shop at the local grocery store.  It's why people who buy designer handbags or shoes pay more for those than people who shop at the discount store.  So really, shouldn't we all, as booklovers and advocates, pay a premium for our books?  I don't mean those people who buy a book here and there, before a flight or a vacation.  I mean those of us who really research and read and follow the book industry and our favorite authors.  If we value books so highly that we purchase them, then perhaps we should purchase them somewhere that most benefits the publisher and the author who brought us those books, too.

I have bought many books on Amazon or on discount online bookstores.  It's really hard not to; they're so cheap.  But if I am one of those people who prefers farmers' market to the local grocery store, and who likes to eat in nice restaurants once in a while, even if they're pricey, then I should extend the same courtesy to my beloved books.

I have veered away from reviewing the book, but that's what it led me to ponder.  The King's English is a series of short stories- making it eminently readable before bed- that will introduce you to so many new authors, so many new people that you have never read or even heard of before.  And its recommended reads will cause your heart to skip a beat.  But most of all, it will make you think.  Can you imagine Barnes & Noble's founder taking time out of his day to write a book about how much he loves books?  About the authors that have impacted him?  I don't think so; and that's ultimately what independent booksellers bring.  The passion and enthusiasm for their work, and their hope to pair you up with exactly the right book for you.


  1. I would just end up not buying books then cos I just can't spend, it hurts my soul.
    And The farmers market here is cheaper than the grocery store so I can blame it on a Finnish thing ;)

    Great review Aarti! :)

  2. That first sentence makes this sound very much like a book-lovers book.

    Great review. I hadn't heard of this book before, but now I'm definitely considering picking it up. :)

  3. I agree with you - it's hard to resist the prices at the big boxes while at the same time loving the indies. One wishes they could get some tax money or something!

  4. Aarti..those of us living in small towns wish we had more indies to support...our choice is usually, used books stores (we have several), the big box, online or the library.

    Thanks for a great review - it really did inspire me to try harder to find a good indie that's not too far away.

  5. I enjoyed this post very much and really want to read this book now. Thanks!

  6. Great review. I'd never heard of this one; I'm always on the lookout for more 'books about books.' Thanks :)

  7. Sounds like a great book, Aarti - thanks for the review!

  8. what are booklovers to do when it comes to buying? the question you pose of why not go independent vs amazon is a toughie. for me, i buy books from everywhere even from the corner grocery store. but still, who can resist discounts?

    loved the quote about falling in love...

  9. This sounds wonderful! And the way you described it reminds me a little of The Yellow Lighted Bookshop, which I read earlier this year and loved.

  10. I thought I was the only one who had read this book. I think I found it on a sale rack.

    I have a love/hate relationship with the big boxes. I prefer Barnes and Noble over Amazon because at least with B&N books are their main business.

  11. Blodeuedd- really? farmers market is cheaper? I am jealous!

    Court- it's not actually the first line, but later on in the story. But I agree- it's a booklover's book :-)

    Rhapsody- completely! A stimulus plan for readers!

    Tina- You're so right. It's unfortunate that a lot of small towns probably don't have access to many indies. However, some small towns really make an effort to keep the indies, and a lot of big cities don't. So hopefully we all get a chance to show our support! And there is always!

    Care, Bookshelf Monstrosity, Lesley and Nymeth- I think it's definitely a book you would enjoy. Particularly for the reading lists!

    vvb32- I buy books everywhere, too. I think I'll try harder to buy indie from now on, though. Maybe that will keep me from buying too many, too!

    Thomas- I got mine on discount, too. Probably from I hope that doesn't mean sales levels were too low!

  12. I loved this one, the part when she writes 'we're a community engaged in the business of books' told of my life of late. It's a good book and you wrote a lovely review.
    All the very best and have a great week.

  13. I try to buy from my LIBS's around me but sometimes Amazon just has them faster and cheaper! Especially the niche books I like the most.

    The King's English sounds like a grand read, I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

  14. Anonymous11/23/2009

    This is tempting...very, very tempting.

  15. I tend to buy most of my books online at discount sources, just because I can get really good deals, but lately I have been scouting out the independent stores and making more purchases there. I agree that these little stores need to be supported and that more serious readers need to support their local indie store. I would hate for the big box stores to be my only choice when it comes to buying locally. Great review on this one. It sounds like a book I would love to get my hands on, even if it is a little stream of consciousness. Great review, it's going on the list!

  16. This book sounds really good. I'm putting it on my TBR list!

  17. I am so glad you linked this review to the party. Not only did you bring a good review (actually great) but an important message. Thank you-


  18. A bit late on the draw, but I also loved this book for the lists and for the sheer love of books that Burton shows. Great post, by the way!


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