Andy Nettell sits in his office at Back of Beyond Books. [Maggie McGuire/Moab Sun News]

Back of Beyond Books has earned the devotion and affection of both locals and visitors over the last three decades. In addition to displaying shelves of new, used, antiquarian and rare books as well as games, gifts and art supplies, the store hosts community events, supports local nonprofits, carries local authors and caters to regional and local interests. Store owner Andy Nettell’s love for books, history, the Southwest, and Moab has made him the perfect conductor of the convergence of all those things in the store’s Main Street location.

However, Nettell and his wife, Marcee, are getting ready to move on from the business, even as the store completes its most successful year ever in the midst of the chaos of the pandemic. Back of Beyond Books is listed for sale; Nettell is looking for a buyer who will carry on the store’s character.

“It’s my fervent hope and prayer that whatever happens, Back of Beyond will remain as is, and that we find someone who has the aesthetic of what we’ve built,” Nettell said.

Through the decades

Back of Beyond Books was founded by a couple from Wyoming, reportedly inspired by a memorial service for Edward Abbey, the author and environmentalist who loved the Moab landscape and brought it to life in the pages of his work “Desert Solitaire.” The store opened in 1990, specializing in environmental literature, natural history, the Southwest, and Native American culture—as well as rare editions of Abbey titles.

Several years later, Nettel, a native of California, opened another bookstore in Moab called Arches Book Company, which catered to general-interest readers and included a coffee bar. Before that, he served ten years as a National Parks ranger and owned a local CD shop. In 2004, Nettell purchased a controlling interest in Back of Beyond; the following year, he opened another bookstore called ABC & Beyond Used Books.

In a golden era for Moab booklovers, the three bookstores did well until the 2008 recession; by 2011, two of the storefronts had to be closed, with Back of Beyond Books remaining.

The lull in business prompted Nettell to pursue a nascent interest in rare, collectible and antiquarian books. He focused on books with a link to the American Southwest, and started participating in book fairs; eventually, that trade grew to become about half of Back of Beyond’s business.

The shop has expanded in size since its beginning and carries reliable stocks of the latest titles, recreational and naturalist guides to the area, local authors and artists, and rare books, as well as the niches the store has always been known for. Shop employees give personalized book recommendations and host a radio book club on local station KZMU. The shop has also established various community events and sponsorships.

“I’ve lived in Moab since 1989 and I’m pretty ingrained in the community, and I would like to think Back of Beyond is part and parcel to the community,” said Nettell. He’s looking for a buyer who is also invested in Moab, and wants to continue the store’s programs like a high school mentorship, a college scholarship for local high school students, and Books for Tots, an annual book giveaway for kids.

“I’ve worked with the schools. I don’t have kids, but the realization that our future lies within our kids is so vital—to get books into their hands is pretty damn important,” Nettell said.

In addition to donations and sponsorships, the store offers reliable jobs for locals.

“I’ve paid 148 unique people on payroll over the 20 years we’ve had the bookstore,” Nettell said. “We’ve employed a lot of locals. I would like to say that a lot of locals who worked here have now moved on to better, more important positions in the community. It’s fun to see the development of employees.”

There are also fun events like author readings and customer appreciation parties. Nettell said the community network that’s grown within and around the store is as important as the book business.

“This is my soul!” he said.

Selling in the best year ever

“This little store is somewhat of a western institution. It has survived 32 years through recessions and pandemics and Amazon and online sellers—2021 was the best year we’ve ever had,” Nettell said.

The store’s current success is due to a 25% increase in the sale of new trade books over the past 12 months. Nettell thinks the pandemic has largely contributed to that: Mass shut-downs prompted a renewed interest in reading, and stimulus checks meant people had money to spend on new books. The pandemic also prompted a surge in outdoor recreation that brought more people to Moab than ever before, once pandemic shut-downs had eased.

In addition to the store’s strong sales, it has a dedicated staff. Nettell said his employees are competent and capable, and can help any new owner transition into the role. He’s made sure to encourage and develop that capacity in the shop staff to ensure there’s a broad base of knowledge, skill and buy-in to support the store’s operation.

“I go by the big truck theory: If I get hit by a big truck on the way home, the store will be fine,” Nettell joked.

The business is listed for $475,000, and does not include the building; the inventory is worth another $300,000.

“The hope is to keep the store in that location by leasing the building, not selling,” Nettell explained. “The goal is to keep Back of Beyond what Back of Beyond is. The best way to do that is to lease the building back to them at a subsidized rate.”

Nettell said that more than experience or business savvy, the buyer should love the community and believe in the store.

“I have a degree in forestry,” Nettell said. “I’ve never read a book on business. On paper, I’m the worst guy [to run a bookstore]. I think what made it work was my heart, and my willingness to work hard.”

To be successful in carrying on Back of Beyond’s legacy, Nettell said, all the new owner needs is to “have a big heart, and a little bit of money.”

Stellar Books and Ephemera

Once the store has sold, Nettell and Marcee will shift to their own company called Stellar Books and Ephemera, dealing in rare books and “ephemera,” the term used for other antiquarian and rare materials like photos, journals and letters.

“I’ll be doing what I’m doing at Back of Beyond—but doing it out of the house, on my own schedule,” Nettell said. He added that as he and Marcee plan to stay in Moab, they will focus on materials outside of Back of Beyond’s established genre of the American Southwest, to avoid creating competition.

While he loves Back of Beyond, Nettell said it was always his and Marcee’s intention to eventually step back from the storefront retail world.

“I’ve done customer service for 38 years. And for an introvert, that’s a struggle,” Nettell said. He’s looking forward to focusing on the books, and on spending time with Marcee and their dog.

Last year, Nettell bought a “massive archive” in Georgia—three tons of material, mostly photographic, that he’s been gradually sorting through. He’ll continue looking for other collections and items of interest and selling them through his smaller, home-based business.

Nettell asks that those interested in purchasing the store contact broker Steve Hitchcock of Touchstone Business Advisors, LLC at steveh@touchstonebiz.com, and refrain from asking store employees for details.