Jan 15, 2021

Independent Bookstores We Love: The King’s English in Sugarhouse, Utah

For decades, Utahns have been browsing the bookshelves at The King’s English looking for their next favorite reads. And though she might not have crossed paths with the thousands of customers who have visited the shop since it’s opening, Anne Holman, general manager, feels like she knows quite a few of them.

“I moved here in March of 1999. I wasn’t working at the time, and my next-door neighbor told me to go see Betsy at The King’s English,” reminisces Holman about her first day at the Sugarhouse, Utah bookstore. “I didn’t think it was possible to work at a bookstore and make money,” she laughs. “But I interviewed, got the job, and I’ve been here ever since.” 

The King’s English, she says, has a fascinating history that extends back to 1977, when Sugarhouse was full of boutique shopping areas. The exterior of the shop looks like a small, cozy house.  “The King’s English used to be an old dried good store, complete with an ice cream fountain,” says Holman.

“In 1977, Betsy Burton, who is my partner now, and her friend were looking for some space to write the ‘great American novel.’ After they moved in, they thought, ‘why not sell some books while we’re here?’ And so they did. They actually [used to keep inventory] on index cards stored in shoeboxes,” Holman shares. 

Reading through COVID 

Though the store no longer uses index cards for inventory— they’ve since gone digital—it’s easy to still feel that same spirit while wandering around looking for your next favorite book, thanks to the intimate design of the store. Each genre is sectioned off to a certain room, corner, or closet of the expansive home, and shelves full of books fill the area, creating a space akin to something magical from a children’s novel. And though the ice cream fountain is now gone, it’s been replaced by nooks filled with plush couches and chairs, making the shop the perfect place to spend an afternoon. 

“It’s like they say in Cheers, people want to go somewhere where people know your name, and it means something when we can greet our customers by name. It's a community, and I think every bookstore in every city is like that.”

Despite being the perfect place to cozy up with a book on one of Salt Lake’s chilly winter days, Holman tells me that no book seeker has been in-store since the beginning of the pandemic. “Throughout [COVID] books have been really important, especially for kids because [attending] school has been so risky.” The King’s English team wanted to give kids some of the same access to books they had always provided, so they moved their regular storytime online to Facebook and Instagram. Since March, they have posted nearly 300 videos of staff reading books to kids.

Holman also shared that recently they’ve heard from many new customers who traditionally haven’t loved to read but wanted something new to do in quarantine. She says one new reader, who had never liked to read before, read a horror novel and came into the shop eager for more. “He called in and said, ‘now I need to read them all,’” she laughs, adding that calling in is how they best interact with their customers these days. 

After a customer calls in for a book recommendation, the team will schedule it for curbside pickup, where The King’s English has transformed a container storage unit into a touchless spot to pick up your reads. “The storage container [was an expensive investment], but it’s something I wish we had done sooner,” she details their old curbside pickup model, a set of bookshelves out in the parking lot that they would set up and organize every day. “That was hard on us and the books. So we bought this storage unit, strung up some Christmas lights inside of it and put wire shelving everywhere. We put the books out there everyday alphabetically and customers come in to pick up their reads when they’re notified [to do so] by email. People have responded well to our touchless pickup.”

Though the touchless pickup point has been a success, management has their eyes on the vaccine news because they’re eager to reopen and let readers come back to wander through their shelves. “We’re hoping to open back up to in-store browsing in late February because we miss our customers dearly. It’s not the same, though we are trying our best.”

The King’s English is Salt Lake’s best-kept secret.
Image from The King's English on Facebook

Bringing big authors to Utah (online!) 

Not only has The King’s English been one of the best places in Utah to buy a book, but it’s also been one of the best places to catch a book event in the state. They’ve hosted authors such as Jimmy Carter (who, Holman tells me, had an instantly calming effect on a stressed-out store employee), Stephen King, and even Ree Drummond aka The Pioneer Woman. 

“We’re definitely small bananas. We don’t get all of the big authors, [but if they] have any kind of say in their touring schedule, they love to come to Utah to go hiking and skiing.” 

“The King’s English has a good track record,” Holman says. “The authors talk, and word gets around to New York that we do these [fun events] and the authors do call us sometimes. We don't get the Stephen Kings every year, but we do try!” 

Due to COVID, like the other shops featured in this series, they’ve had to take their legendary in-person events virtual, which has given the store a larger audience, and in some cases, greater access to authors who are willing to participate in events online. Holman tells me that The King’s English hosts a writers workshop every March, and several well-known authors are already committed to presenting, creating a recipe for a perfect event, something Holman knows a thing or two about. 

 “I feel like the best events happen when the audience engages with the author and really connects,” says Holman, adding that they’ve been pleased with the results from their online events so far. “When this is all over, hopefully we will do both in-person and online events.” 

As Holman discusses their new process, you can hear the passion seeping through her voice and it’s evident that The King’s English is a special place. “We are well into our third generation of families who have shopped with us, and it’s amazing,” she says. “We’ve always loved serving as [a] place where people can gather, feel safe, and feel heard.”

“It’s like they say in Cheers, people want to go somewhere where people know your name, and it means something when we can greet our customers by name. It's a community, and I think every bookstore in every city is like that.”