We’re on mountain time here in Salt Lake City, so on 9/11 we woke up early to the news of the towers falling in New York. After a stunned conversation with my husband and a quick cup of coffee, I drove directly to our store, as did all our booksellers, knowing instinctively that we had to be open on time. And we were mobbed, not because people wanted to buy books but because they needed a place to be; they needed a place where they felt safe, to talk about and digest what had happened, to express their own shock and fear, yes, but also to listen to others talk, to hear what others were feeling—and thinking—about what had just happened and what it meant.
The same was true when the U.S. invaded Iraq; when hanging chads decided a presidential election; after Sandy Hook and Columbine and Boston; after the shooting here in Salt Lake City, in Trolley Square; and after St. Louis, San Bernardino, Paris, Mumbai, Istanbul, Orlando, and now Dallas.
This new world we find ourselves in isn’t a known world. Even after we hear who the bombers or shooters are and what may have motivated them, there is so much left unexplained, so much at once terrifying and puzzling. Where better to go for answers, or, if not answers, shared bewilderment, than to an independent bookstore?
Because of the books, yes; because of the history on our shelves that lends perspective to whatever is happening currently; and because of the novels that delve into the human experience and teach empathy. But independent bookstores are more than the sum of their books. They’re safe havens, centers of community where people go to see friends and neighbors—or strangers who are interesting to meet and talk to—but they’re also refuges populated by booksellers who are not just interesting, and interested, but empathetic. Why? Because of their reading, certainly, but also because we booksellers look for the quality of empathy when we interview, and because after we hire, we continue to train for it, wanting new booksellers to reflect the goals we have for our stores: to be warm, welcoming, accepting.
Readers by definition, good booksellers are also open-minded, able to recommend books on any subject and openly discuss issues of gender and politics and the rearing of children, among others. At our best, we create a safe place to wonder, to express an opinion, and to seek the opinions of others, whether from books or one another. In my bookstore, the King’s English, we used to have a bench by the counter where customers could sit to write checks or talk. We called it the confessional bench because when the store was quiet customers would sometimes settle in and literally bare their souls to us, not because they needed advice but because they needed someone to hear them—although often such conversations did, in the end, result in advice, in the form of books.
So, yes, bookseller-to-customer empathy creates a safe environment. But so does the reader-to-reader connection in our stores. This connection is fostered by the warm, welcoming atmosphere we try to create, and also by the physical space of the stores themselves, with their shelves full of books and privacy for intimate conversations. During rush times, there’s the camaraderie of long lines of book-bearing people exchanging titles, gossip, the headlines, and so on. Bookstores are not just community centers but places where many views of the world are expressed, where authors speak on every subject imaginable, where education and activism are emphasized (as when, after Orlando, booksellers nationwide helped the ABA to create book lists on LGBTQ issues, while Left Bank Books in St. Louis organized a 2,000-person rally in less than 24 hours), and where a seemingly infinite number of books provide escape or help us understand what cannot be escaped.
More inclusive than many churches, more communal than cultural events where people share an experience rather than a conversation, more intimate than a bar where opinions can be met with jeers or worse, independent bookstores are, I’ll say it again, safe havens. They are places where questions can be asked and answers found—whether in conversation or in books that try to make sense of the unthinkable (Mischling, due out this September), shed light on the intolerable (Just Mercy, 2014), or bridge the unbridgeable (A Fine Balance, published 20 years ago, does exactly that). Books are beyond wonderful, and so are independent bookstores: communal in the best sense of the word.
Betsy Burton, cofounder of the King’s English bookstore in Salt Lake City, is the current president of the American Booksellers Association.