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Back of Beyond Books

Often cited as the best bookstore in the West, Back of Beyond Books at 54 North Main, has become a legend in its own time.

Of course, that’s sort of a natural outcome because the whole idea for Back of Beyond Bookstore arose out of one Moab’s most legendary former residents and environmentalists, Edward Abbey. After Abbey’s death in March of 1989, friends held a memorial service in Moab. That’s when Karilyn Brodell and Bruce Hayse, the Jackson Hole, Wyoming, owners of Back of Beyond Books, met Jose Knighton. Jose had worked at the Cosmic Airplane, a book, record and jewelry store in Salt Lake City. Jose had already made up his mind to leave the city and move to Moab. So when Karilyn and Bruce proposed the idea of starting a bookstore in Moab, Jose was a perfect choice to help launch and manage it. And the three shared a common goal to build a store in the spirit and memory of Edward Abbey. Indeed, the spirit of Abbey lives strongly at Back of Beyond. Advertisements for the store state “complete (almost) works of Edward Abbey.” Co-owner Hayse, a Wyoming physician, loves to track down rare books on the West and sometimes some of his rarest of finds, first printings of Edward Abbey and all but extinct books by the author, show up in the rare book case at the store. An entire bookshelf is devoted to “Edward Abbey & Friends.”

Not only is Back of Beyond a legend, it is also bucking the trend of independently-owned bookstores being gobbled up by goliath chains and dot coms. There are a good number of reasons why the store will continue to buck the trend, believes Jose, manager of the store for 11 years. “We’re in an ideal situation to remain strong as an independent book store,” says Jose. “When people are in Moab they want instant gratification. They want a book to read on the river or in their motel rooms. They want to know about the flowers, geology, and wildlife while they’re here. They don’t want to wait until they get back to their city to buy the book.”

The store has many resources that give it an edge when competing in a market studded with large, mainstream book markets and mega-sized dot coms. Co-owner Karilyn Brodell, manages the independent bookstore Valley Books in Jackson Hole. Selling books in a similar market and having three bibliophiles watch the trends adds a lot of punch to Back of Beyond’s success. “We also have a lot of customer loyalty in the inner-mountain West,” says Jose. “The store is known for having a lot of depth in the areas of environmental studies, natural history, and Native American studies. Because of that, we get tons of repeat customers and mail orders because these aren’t books that you can walk into major chains and buy. With all the books those mega-stores have, they don’t have much of what we carry.”

Additionally, Jose points out that people have developed an emotional attachment to Back of Beyond. “The people who visit Moab and Back of Beyond care very much about southeastern Utah. They love Moab, they want to see the environment protected, and they know the store cares about the same things they do, so there’s a sort of symbiosis that occurs.”

The original store, which opened in February of 1990, celebrated its grand opening upon the release of Abbey’s last work of fiction, Hayduke Lives, and on John Wesley Powell’s birthday. The store was only 30 feet X 30 feet. Even then it was loaded with books, although Brodell remembers clearly the first year of business when the shelves seemed bare.

As Moab blossomed, so did Back of Beyond. Doubling its size in the same location in 1994, today it stocks even more titles and the shelves are overflowing. You can always find Oprah’s latest book-of-the month, but most shoppers are looking for those hard-to-find titles on western water issues, local history, or natural history that they can’t purchase at chain stores in the city.

Of course, Back of Beyond also carries every guidebook and map available on regional rivers, 4X4 roads, hiking and biking trails, rock and mountain name it and you can find it!

The store’s ambience is likely also part of the attraction. Furnished with comfortable chairs and a sofa, people are often found nestled on the sofa with a book or curled up on the floor checking out titles.

Like City Lights Books in San Francisco, Elliot Bay Books in Seattle, Powell’s in Portland, or the Tattered Cover in Denver, Back of Beyond in Moab has almost become a destination of its own.

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