In an era of texts, tweets, posts, downloads, digital access to anything and everything plus super discounted online box stores, Back of Beyond Books remains a stronghold of the book.
Many call Back of Beyond a Western icon. People from all over the world come to Moab to ride bikes or visit the national parks, but also high on their list is a stop at Back of Beyond Books.
“We hear it all the time,” said Andy Nettell, owner and proprietor of the store. “Customers tell us we are the best bookstore in the West and a visit to Moab wouldn’t be complete without coming in.”
Music to the ears of any retailer anywhere, but when the product is one that media and business professionals predicted would vanish sooner than later, it is, indeed, a happy melody. Many larger bookstore chains have toppled under the weight of e-readers and online shopping. Back of Beyond perseveres.
The success is in the mix, said Nettell.
“Back of Beyond has always specialized in Western and regional titles, natural history, Western rivers, guidebooks and hard-to-find books on the Colorado Plateau, but we really have it all,” he said.
Nettell referred to the large selection of best sellers, both fiction and nonfiction, as well as genre fiction such as science fiction and mystery. The store also stocks a huge variety of children’s and young adult titles as well as cookbooks, craft books, crossword puzzles and unique gift items.
“And if we don’t have the book you’re looking for, we’ll get it for you,” he said.
Customer Michael Ashcraft agreed.
“Over 10 to 12 years Andy Nettell has managed to get and find uncountable numbers of rare, valuable, esoteric, one-of-a-kind books and has never failed to find the kind of literature that I could find no other place in the world, including the internet,” Ashcraft said.
It turned out that isn’t an overstatement.
“We will do whatever we can to put books in people’s hands,” said Nettell. “Rare, out of print, e-books, e-readers, fantasy or sci-fi series, we will get it for our customers.” Nettell also said that most special orders receive a 20 percent discount, in part to keep people shopping locally instead of online.
“We want locals to come here for their books,” he said. “People judge communities by their education, library, churches and bookstores. I would hate to ever see Moab without a bookstore.”
The Moab community has enjoyed Back of Beyond for almost 24 years. It first opened in 1990, one year after the death of author Edward Abbey. A group of people who knew Abbey gathered in Moab for a memorial service and hatched the idea of a great Western bookstore. They snagged the title from the text of one of Abbey’s books, “Monkeywrench Gang.”
Nettell purchased the store from out-of-state owners in 2005. Prior to owning Back of Beyond, Nettell was a park ranger at Canyonlands and Arches national parks. A music aficionado as well as bibliophile, he first purchased Music of Moab and found he had to choose between retailing and rangering. Retail won and Andy started peddling music full time.
“When I bought the music store, you couldn’t download or share music online. When I saw that change coming, I sold the music store and was looking around for something to do,” he recalled.
That something turned out to be Arches Book Company and ABC and Beyond Used Books.
“The idea of Arches Book Company was to fill the niche of general literature, magazines and, of course, a coffee bar,” Nettell said.
But technology keeps chasing Nettell.
“When I got into the book business,” he said, “there was no such thing as an e-reader.”
Between e-readers and the crash of 2008, two bookstores and a used bookstore in Moab, turned out to be too much for one small business to bear. After less than two years of operation Arches Book Company closed.
Nettell consolidated Arches and Back of Beyond into the current location on the west side of Main Street. The space grew and then shrank as the economy shrank and is now back to its original size. Not discouraged, Nettell has reinvented the bookstore as both a mecca of regional titles and a hot spot for general literature of all kinds, children’s titles, gifts, and even art supplies.
Another part of the new vision for Back of Beyond Books is a rare and antiquarian department. In fact, sale of antiquarian books is outpacing new books, Nettell said. “The tactile nature of what a 100-year old book can provide can’t be replaced. The content can’t be duplicated and the realization that you are holding a first edition book that might have changed the culture and fabric of America…well, to have and hold a part of history is pretty amazing. People respond emotionally to these books and want to own them,” Nettell said.
Nettell travels to about six antiquarian book shows a year and publishes three or four rare book catalogs each year, which are mailed across the globe as well as through the Internet.
In spite of the global reach, store manager Karen Downey puts bookselling in perspective.
“You know what we do best?” said Downey. “We match people with books.“
Downey is in her ninth year with Back of Beyond, which is a testament to how satisfying it is to be surrounded by books.
“I’m never bored,” she said. “There is so much variety here. I never do the same thing. One minute I may be helping a customer with maps and the next minute recommending a good book to read by the pool,” she said.
When talking about the business of bookselling, Nettell waxes poetic and gets almost teary-eyed.
“Selling books is a noble profession,” he said. “Knowledge is wisdom and without it, society would be lesser for it.”