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by brian sousa | May 23, 2014 | Lifestyle
With the Wyly family solidly at the helm, Explore Booksellers is an only-in-Aspen gem peddling the power of the written word.
Let me purge a long-kept secret: I once worked at an enormous corporate bookstore in Boston. MFA degree in hand, I bagged unwanted textbooks and coveted shot glasses for college students. The gig left a dusty taste in my mouth—the daily “sales meetings,” the robotic glares in coworkers’ eyes—it was a drain on the soul.
Luckily, Explore Booksellers in Aspen represents the utter opposite. On a spring afternoon, I traded the sunny sidewalk of Main Street for the indoor glow of ideas and enthusiasm, courtesy of manager John Edwards and chief bookseller Mark Billingsley. As they eagerly described, Explore is many things: a tangible history lesson, a friendly meeting place for locals and tourists alike, and a modern business model, constantly updated as the publishing industry fluctuates. Let’s put it this way: Explore’s heart is in the right place. This is readily apparent when Billingsley urges, “Explore! Walk around. We encourage people to sit and read.” I indulge him, choosing a luxurious black leather chair and soaking in the underground history of one of Aspen’s most iconic landmarks.
Explore has a living-room-plus-library vibe.
Explore was opened in 1975 by Katherine Thalberg, wife of former Mayor Bill Stirling. The quaint store occupies an original 1892 Victorian, where you’ll find a plethora of cozy rooms stuffed with books of every category and accented with antique furniture and ornate rugs. Altogether, the décor summons a living-room-plus-library vibe, and the town has Thalberg to thank for this. Billingsley adds, “We want to express a real sense of gratitude to Katherine and her dedication to the idea of having an independent bookstore in this community.”
Thalberg also started Aspen’s first strictly vegan restaurant in the attic: Explore Bistro, which today has evolved into Pyramid Bistro, a renowned nutritarian restaurant owned by Martin Oswald.
In 2007 Sam and Cheryl Wyly bought the store, satisfying writers and readers alike who were worried the town would lose its indie darling. Further solidifying the connection between local writers and Explore, Sam Wyly is a successful author himself, with three books published on varied topics, including Texas Got It Right!, a sociological study of Texan policies, history, and culture.
Chief bookseller Mark Billingsley.
When asked what makes Explore different, Billingsley—with a long gray ponytail and a quick smile—quips, “Physical books! A great collection and a staff that will talk to customers and find out exactly what they’d like to read.” He enthusiastically gives an example: The other day, a child was looking for a $3 book, and every employee conducted a full-on search. “We’re a very supportive community,” he adds, “grateful to authors and publishers. We know how difficult it is to be an author.”
This support extends beyond the vintage walls. Edwards explains how Explore backs writers: “We carry self-published authors, offer sales on consignment, and work with local writers to organize events.” He also mentions the close community of scribes who own houses in Aspen, such as James Salter, and proudly details Explore’s strong partnership with the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, The Aspen Institute, local book clubs, and events geared toward children’s literacy.
What about uncommon books? I assume the answer will be related to extreme winter sports or Aspen’s reputation as a countercultural mecca. (Ski the 14ers catches my eye immediately as does the wealth of books in the Body, Mind, Spirit section.) However, Billingsley’s answer surprises me. “Right now,” he says, “we have a $600 book on motorcycle photography.”
I crank the handlebars back to my own bookstore tribulations. “Any interesting visitors?” I inquire, recalling an old Boston favorite who would warn of the apocalypse daily. “We do have authors pop by unannounced,” Edwards divulges. “Ann Patchett recently stopped in to visit.”
Both booksellers speak confidently of the resurgence of “real books,” as opposed to the pre-programmed alternative, and foresee Explore continuing to solidify “its own place” in this new publishing landscape. Edwards fills me in on the Kobo, the sleek, no-frills e-reader Explore democratically offers, and adds that while browsing in the bookstore, “you’ll find an aspect of the unexpected” that simply isn’t accessible on amazon.com. Billingsley agrees, citing the importance of supporting local businesses from Ute Mountaineer to Explore.
On my way out, Billingsley winks and pulls on one of the bookshelves, magically revealing a secret compartment. “I think we’re the secret,” he says, closing the space normally kept hidden.
And the key to the secret? To explore. 221 E. Main St., 970-925-5336
photography by seth olenick (books); john luke