Betsy Burton said she’s known for a little while that she was ready to retire from the bookstore business.
The COVID-19 pandemic, when she and her staff kept Salt Lake City’s The King’s English bookstore alive as an online business with curbside service, “cemented the notion that I’m too old for this,” said Burton, 74. “I was working harder than I really can comfortably do.”
As Burton talked to friends in the trade about selling the store, someone suggested she seek the advice of Calvin Crosby, executive director of the California Independent Booksellers Alliance for the last six years. Crosby, who grew up in Utah, knew the store well.
“So I called Calvin and I was telling him about it, and there was this kind of peculiar silence on the other end of the line,” Burton said Monday. “He said, ‘I might be interested.’”
That was in April. Now, Crosby is preparing to become majority owner of The King’s English, effective July 1, as Burton ends 44 years running the store that has become a haven for Utah book lovers and a fixture of the city’s 15th and 15th neighborhood.
Crosby said Monday that he wasn’t surprised when Burton, a longtime friend, called. “A lot of store owners are aging out and thinking about their next steps,” he said. His reaction, however, was a surprise.
“It just came so fast because I had no intentions — there was no inkling — that I wanted to leave my job or California, until this notion that I could be part of The King’s English,” Crosby said Monday. “And then that was all I could think about.”
Crosby is buying Burton’s 40% share, and a 20% share held by silent partner Deon Hilger, to become majority owner, Burton said. Anne Holman, who has been with the store for two decades, owns the other 40%, and is remaining at the store.
“It was one of those moments when it just seemed like it was meant to be, because everything fit,” Burton said. She praised Crosby for his financial mind, “not just knowing how you’re doing day to day, but what’s in the air — and how you should get ready for what’s in the air.”
Catherine Weller, co-owner of the competing Weller Book Works, said Burton’s retirement is “the end of an era, but it’s most definitely not the end of a store. … Her willingness to speak out about issues, her passion about books, her love of reading an author — all of those things have just made her an extraordinary bookseller.”
Weller said Crosby “is just wonderful. … He is young and dynamic, and I’m sure he’ll have a lot of different ideas. He’s from here, so he knows the area and the culture.”
A Utah kid comes home
Crosby, 55, spent his childhood in Orem, Lindon and Magna — and would “take the Magna 37 [bus route] and hike up to the bookstore as often as I could,” he said.
Crosby credited The King’s English, along with Sam Weller’s Bookstore (now Weller Book Works) and the Orem Public Library, “for my book addiction, my love of reading.”
“It just felt so good to be surrounded by books and nice people,” said Crosby, who is of Cherokee ancestry and grew up in a Chicano household. “I was darker than a lot of people, and I’m also gay. So to go to a place where none of that mattered, having that safe place, was everything to me.”
Crosby started working in the book industry 25 years ago, taking a part-time holiday job at Book Passage, an independent bookstore in Corte Madera, in California’s Marin County, north of San Francisco.
“I was also working at Williams-Sonoma, and I really thought Williams-Sonoma was going to be my career path,” Crosby said. “It paid much less than Williams-Sonoma, but I realized this is what I want to do.” By the end of the holidays, he was working full-time there; a year later, he was the manager, a job he held for three years.
From there, Crosby worked for six years as manager and community relations director for Books Inc., a chain of California bookstores, and did a stint as sales and marketing manager for McSweeney’s, the nonprofit publishing house founded by author Dave Eggers. For the past six years, Crosby has been executive director of the California Independent Booksellers Alliance (CALIBA), advocating for hundreds of stores in the state.
Crosby said he and his husband, Keith Jones, often visit Utah to see Crosby’s sister, Melissa, who lives in Cottonwood Heights. Every time, he said, the first place they visit is The King’s English.
Some years ago, Crosby came to Salt Lake City for the national convention of the American Booksellers Association. (Burton is a past president of the organization.) Crosby said he was asked to conduct a peer review of The King’s English and Sam Weller’s, “not knowing that I was from Salt Lake. I said, ‘Oh, hell yeah. I get to see the inner workings of The King’s English and Weller’s.’” That, he said, is when he first became friends with Burton and Holman.
Burton started The King’s English in 1977 with her then-business partner, Ann Berman — both of them, Burton said, writing their way toward becoming failed novelists.
One day, over coffee, “we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have a bookstore where people would come in and browse?’ And we’d have chairs and we serve coffee and tea,” Burton said — adding that bookstores back then had “shelves on the walls, and you’d stand there and maybe talk to people, but you didn’t sit down and chat.”
In the 1990s, Burton said, she helped organize one of the first “Local First” bookstore campaigns — a response, she said, to big-box bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders sucking up business and tax incentives. Through the American Booksellers Association, Burton said, the “Local First” model has expanded nationwide.
Burton sees The King’s English as “a real community center.” She recalled how, after the September 11 attacks in 2001, “we were packed for three solid days, with people who had no desire to buy anything. They just needed a place to come talk.”
Surviving the pandemic
As the COVID-19 pandemic was growing last summer, the store had to close its doors to in-person sales — in part because Burton and several of the store’s staff were in groups considered at higher risk of falling ill from the coronavirus.
“I said, in August, ‘Look, if we keep going like this, we won’t even make it to Christmas,’” Burton said.
The store ran a “Christmas in September” campaign, asking customers to do some of their holiday shopping early through the store’s website. The campaign, she said, “was wildly successful because people do love us, and we got thousands and thousands of orders — way too many for us to handle, which was its own nightmare.”
Burton said she expects Crosby will build on the digital trade established during the pandemic, even as in-person shopping has resumed. (The store’s rules — only 12 customers inside at a time, and everyone wearing masks — are still being enforced, Burton said.) The container box in the store’s small parking lot, where customers have been picking up their curbside orders, will likely stay in place, she said.
Burton will stay involved with the store, editing the quarterly newsletter, The Inkslinger. She also has to tend to some medical issues in her family, and she hopes to write another book — which won’t be about the book business, like her 2005 memoir, “The King’s English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller.”
Burton, Crosby said, “is the most gracious person on the planet. Her love of the store, and the store’s legacy — to be able to slip into that is a huge honor.”
Crosby said he and his husband have found a nice house in the Marmalade area, and are starting the process of moving from California to Utah. He said they’re looking forward to seeing Crosby’s sister, Melissa, and her daughters more often — and seeing what The King’s English will be in the future.
“People here have missed gathering in there, and being surrounded by books,” Crosby said. “An independent bookstore is the heart of any community. It’s that like-minded people just wanting to gather, or just be near other like-minded people, and people who love books.”