Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Central Book Exchange

A look at the history and current happenings at the Sugar House bookshop

Posted By on July 15, 2015, 6:09 PM

To say Sugar House has gone through a lot of changes in the past decade is an understatement, as big business and poor planning turned the community on its head for several years, and left it in a state of unknown chaos until the redevelopment finally kicked in. For some, it was a welcome change from the pit left behind; for others it was an unnecessary change that did little for the area. But to those who loved the spark of the old neighborhood, there still remain pockets left unchanged that still hold that community magic. One of those gems still left is the Central Book Exchange, one of the few locally-owned bookstores left in the city, proudly holding their own in an e-book era. Today we chat with the current owner Pam Pedersen, and current manager (and for full disclosure reasons, occasional City Weekly freelance writer) Shawna Meyer, to talk about the shop and their upcoming summer event. (All pictures courtesy of CBE.)

Pam Pedersen & Shawna Meyer
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Central-BookExchange.com

Gavin: Hey everyone, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Pam:
 I’ve been the owner of the Central Book Exchange for the last 10 years. I was the kid who checked out so many books each week from the library that I could barely carry them. It was good practice for carrying stacks of books around at the store. With a great team over these 10 years, we have managed to breathe life into an icon of SLC—the 46-year-old Central Book Exchange. A careful balance of the old and new have seemed successful so far. We are looking forward to more great years ahead. We have a couple of mantras: Make it easy for the customer, and check with us first.

Shawna: I’ve worked at the CBE for almost a year now, and have been the manager for about six months. A little over a year ago, I graduated with honors from the University of Utah with a degree in English, and it was a little scary. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, but I knew that I loved reading and writing. I’ve always said that one of my dream jobs would be to work at a bookstore, so I applied at a few local ones downtown. I was hooked after my first week at the store. I remember going to see our warehouse for the first time—there were books, on books, on books. It was so exciting to me! I’m a little bit of the black sheep in my family, in that nobody else really enjoys reading. Working at the CBE with the customers and staff allows me to hang around with people that understand and share my love for words.

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Gavin: What got each of you interested in reading, and what are some of your favorite books?

Pam:
My mom read and read and read to me. It’s cheap entertainment, you know? I had a very distressing move in 3rd grade—I know now that I was clinically depressed for over a year, but with no one to understand or acknowledge that issue, I turned to books. I read every minute, and got through a rough year by escaping into everyone else’s life but mine. My other great story is discovering The Blue Castle, by L.M. Montgomery. There was an 1899 [hardcover] copy in my local library. After I checked it out for year,s I finally sat down with the silvery-haired librarian and told her I would steal the book if she didn’t give it to me. I pointed out all the dates it had been checked out over time, and they were all my library card number. They took pity on me and soon the book was marked “DISCARDED” on many available surfaces and it was mine. I still have it today.

Shawna: I remember my mom reading books aloud to me when I was young—anything from Harry Potter to non-fiction books about animals. I think my interest took off from those moments with her. She was sick for the majority of my adolescence, and passed away when I was 19. After she died, I took solace in libraries and bookstores. Reading really acted as an escape for me. As an English major, I’ve read a lot of the classics, so after college, I felt like I should branch out a little. I still love Shakespeare—King Lear is my favorite of his plays. I enjoyed Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’ve read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley so many times, but it never gets old. I just finished a short story collection called Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino that blew my mind.

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Gavin: For those curious, how did the Central Book Exchange first come to be back in the late '60s?

Pam:
It all started with a man named Don Bowles, who bought a school library collection. He was going to sell books mail order, and decided to open the store as an interim to his mail-order business. He had hundreds of copies of popular fiction titles as well as classics. He wanted to acquire more so he could sell them to schools. He originally opened next door to us and at some point before 1972 moved to our current location. Mary Lynn, our long-time employee of 42 years, began working for Don at this time. Around this time, there were many book exchanges, but Don’s program was very simple compared to the others. There were no limits, people didn’t have to buy the same types of books, and he was present at the store almost every day until 7 or 9 p.m. depending on the day of the week. Other stores that had limited hours and complicated trade rules were soon forced out of business. Don even sold stock to a couple of people who opened stores in Odgen, Colorado and Logan using his business model. Those stores stayed in business for a long time, and we think one might still be in business under different ownership. In 1986, the city "beautified" 1100 East and removed the old trolley lines that had run up and down the street for decades. The construction project was devastating to local businesses, and was especially harmful to the Book Exchange. Foot traffic and small businesses went away overnight. Mary Lynn states that a major decline began and the store never recovered to the level of business that had been enjoyed the decade before. In 1990, Don started a mail-order romance book club with his brother. Don and Mary Lynn tried to keep up with the mail, which was more difficult than they imagined. There were fewer titles coming into the store after the construction, people quickly purchased the good titles, and then, with the collectibles gone, interest waned. That program disappeared by 1995. After that, the store held on by a thread. Don lived in Colorado and his health was poor, so Mary Lynn ran the store alone for two weeks at a time before she had a weekend off. She kept the store open almost every day no matter what. The store remained this way until the early 2000’s.

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Gavin: Pam, how did you end up becoming the owner?

Pam:
At some point during the 2000’s, the Salt Lake Tribune did a story on the Central Book Exchange. The article was full of quotes from Don and Mary Lynn; they obviously yearned for a different time when the store was crowded with people exchanging books, shopping, and talking with each other about reading. The article was sad to me. I had shopped at the bookstore in the late 1980’s and knew that something needed to change, even then. I saw a business with a long history and a presence in the neighborhood that needed to STAY! As a kid, I drew houses with libraries that were larger than the whole house. I dreamed of multi-story, castle-like libraries with books as far as the eye could see. That dream was never far from my mind. When the opportunity arose to talk to Don about buying the business, I was thrilled! To me, the filthy windows with decaying signs, the dust piled inches thick, the stacks of romance novels not touched for 10 years, the dimness of the store—these things didn’t matter. The Central Book Exchange was a magical place just waiting to be rediscovered for everyone.

Gavin: When you first took over, were there any major changes you implemented at the start?

Pam:
Taking out dead signs and piles of books from the windows was a huge improvement. People began walking in that first week wondering why they had never noticed the store before. We also carried in our first computer, which about sent Mary Lynn into a fit. She was sure it would be stolen, and couldn’t figure out why we even wanted it. Mary Lynn retired this last December; during her time with me she grew to understand and love our many computers and was kind enough to adjust to the many changes that happened rapidly as the store moved into a new, updated mode.

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Gavin: What's it been like operating the shop in Sugar House, so close to an area undergoing redevelopment for the past 10 years?

Pam:
It was interesting to live with "The Pit" on the corner of 21st and Highland for so long. There were very few businesses close to us in 2005 when I took over. People had to want to come see the bookstore; there weren’t people just wandering by like there are now. The construction scares people into going somewhere else. Parking and road closures are tough, and people having to create new habits for themselves of where they drive, walk and shop—these things take time. There were some slow times. However, owning a business where people would come in and say they had been here as a child, made the slow times more bearable.

Gavin: What kind of challenge has it been competing with a major bookstore chain a couple blocks away?

Pam:
I don’t really see other bookstores as competition. The major chain has “a lot of a little,” and I have "a little of everything." The employees at the chain shop in my neighborhood send customers my way all the time. Unfortunately, there aren’t many other bookstores nowadays, and really none like mine. There was a long-time exchange in West Valley that closed a couple of years ago. Other stores in the area have very different price points and areas of expertise, so I think we all coexist very well.

Shawna: I agree with Pam. I don’t really think that stores like Barnes & Noble can compare with what we have. I’m not knocking those types of chain stores—I’ve shopped there many times. It’s fine if you just want to run in really quick and pick up a well-known title. We try to carry lesser known titles. Generally, people come into our shop to look around, they take their time looking through most of the sections, and they interact with other customers and employees. It’s less about finding what you ‘need’ and more about finding things that you didn’t know you needed.

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Gavin: How do you go about deciding what you'll keep in stock in the shop and what titles to bring in?

Shawna:
Our store is called an exchange for a reason. People bring us their books and we give them trade points for them. Then they use those trade points to lower the cost of other books in our store: customers save lots over time. It’s easy, we don’t require appointments to come in, and we generally don’t send people away with all their heavy books. We try to keep everything so customers can walk out with only new books they want to read. These practices are very unusual for most other used bookstores we have seen. We have a great selection of books to add to our inventory every day.

Pam: Because of our exchange system, we bring in very few titles new, and most of those are in the Beat author category. Young people and older are rediscovering great authors from the '60s and '70s who helped change our world view today. And they don’t want these important books in a digital format; they want a dog-eared, good smelling, paper copy. When we can’t find enough used copies, we do buy some new, but it’s rare.

Gavin: What has the transition been like for the shop as books keep shifting toward a digital era?

Pam:
The fear over the e-reader phenomenon has been greatly over-hyped. Like all new technology there is an initial surge of curious interest. Then the people who truly have found a new and better way stick with that new technology. Most other people use all formats and paper is still the choice for many, many people. There are lots of older titles that aren’t really easily found in paper and don’t exist yet in an e-format. That’s where we come in even for hardcore e-reader people. But no matter how addicted we all are to our smart phones, old fashioned books hold a strong place in readers’ hearts.

Shawna: When I started here, we were already selling online. Those sales enable us to breathe a little when it comes to selling in store. We don’t want customers to feel pressured into buying things, so online sales lets us focus more on creating a positive experience for the customers. We want them to leave thinking, “Man, that store was rad. I’m definitely coming back.” We don’t think that books are going anywhere anytime soon. Digital books might be fine for some titles, but there will always be those books that you want to own a hard copy. You can’t organize digital books onto a bookshelf to display.

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Gavin: How important has it become to have a knowledgeable staff on board, and who do you currently have helping around the store?

Shawna:
Having a well-trained and knowledgeable staff is vital to any bookstore. Our staff has always been small—just 5 or 6 people usually. When it comes to hiring people, we think about who would add depth to the team and get along well. We actually just hired two new people: Jackson and Sally. They’ve only been at the store for a few weeks now, so they’re still in training mode. Jackson just graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in Middle Eastern studies and an emphasis in Arabic. He likes to read history and political science books, as well as science fiction. Sally is a student at Westminster College pursuing a degree in music with an emphasis in vocal performance. She enjoys reading fiction and the classics. Sophia has been at the Central Book Exchange for a little over a year. She’s the quietest of the bunch, so you can usually find her in the back adding books to our inventory. I joke that she’s the hippest as well because she’s always up to something cool. She just graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in painting and likes reading historical fiction. Brandi has been working at the store for about six months now. She loves reading a little bit of everything but especially enjoys science fiction, fantasy, and poetry. She’s a part-time artist as well, which is why our window displays always look so good. Basically anything that looks pretty or interesting in the store, 9 times out of 10 Brandi is responsible for it.

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Gavin: There are very few bookshops left in SLC, but the ones we have seem to be some of the best in the state. How is it keeping company with places like Weller Book Works, Ken Sanders and King's English?

Pam:
We truly believe that MORE bookstores are better—we have so few already. I am thrilled to be in the company of other bookstores who have weathered their own storms and who are going strong into our new era. We all send customers back and forth to try to meet the needs of our city.

Shawna: I think well-known used bookstores are the ones that have succeeded in building a community around their store. I’ve shopped at all of the stores mentioned, and they’re all really special. I think what has allowed us all to coexist is that we have slightly different business models. We have our exchange program and used books mostly for readers, which sets us apart from the other stores.

Gavin: I understand you have a summer Parking Lot Sale coming up. What will you be doing at that event?

Pam:
We have our 5th Annual Parking Lot Sale at the end of July. Under a big tent, people can dig through books that have been stored for decades. The prices are great, there are thousands of books, and each year people discover treasures they never imagined they would find. It has the feel of a part—people leave happy each year! Just don’t miss it—it doesn’t last long and it’s only once a year.

Shawna: This year the Parking Lot Sale is going to be unique because we’re doing it for three days instead of just two. It will be on July 30 from 5-8 p.m., July 31 from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., and Aug. 1 from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. Also for the first time, on Aug. 1 from 2 -5 p.m. we’ll be allowing customers to fill a bag for $5. The bags will be provided. There will be thousands of books on sale. It should be a lot of fun, so we encourage people to come and browse!

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Gavin: For readers and book lovers who enjoy shops like this, what can you best recommend they do to help bookshops thrive in a digital era?

Shawna:
The most important advice we can give to people who love used bookstores and local businesses like ours is to come out and shop in them—that’s all we can ask. We’ll do our best to make a good experience. Before you check anywhere else, come check with us. If we have it, then you’ll be helping out a local business and you’ll save money. People who really enjoy used bookstores just need to keep coming back. They need to tell their friends and family about us. Spreading the word about our store is probably the second most important thing customers can do. We have a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter and an Instagram.

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