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Business Happenings - November 2002

Exploring the Back of Beyond in an Armchair
by Annabelle Numaguchi

Thirteen years have passed since José Knighton established Back of Beyond Books, a haven for western literature and an interactive memorial to Edward Abbey and the ideals he continues to symbolize. It was, in fact, Abbey’s memorial service in May of ‘89 that generated the idea for this bookstore. Knighton explains that he wanted to “pay homage to Ed’s literary presence in Moab,” and decided to open Back of Beyond back when the town seemed beyond booming again. A native of northern Utah, Knighton, who worked for several bookstores in Salt Lake City, met Abbey through various book signings and events supporting environmental issues. He borrowed the name for the bookstore from the Abbey work, Hayduke Lives, a sequel to the popular The Monkey Wrench Gang.

Back of Beyond is a complete bookstore in that it carries literature on myriad subjects along with an assortment of greeting cards, calendars and magazines. However, the charming store exhibits a strong flair for Western Americana, initially evident in the section devoted to Abbey, and specializes in natural history and regional guides, particularly for hiking and river-running. Knighton claims that Back of Beyond possesses “one of the deepest inventories of natural history of the West,” which is supported by the repeat local and out-of-town customers he gets searching for this particular material. Many of his magazines focus on environmental and fringe political issues, periodicals not regularly carried elsewhere.

Because of the bookstore’s locale in southern Utah, books that appear on the traditional best seller lists don’t always receive the same enthusiasm from Back of Beyond’s patrons. Consequently, Knighton is more attuned to his customer’s reading preferences and pays close attention to their suggestions, stocking what people ask for directly. He obviously has a good ear since he has doubled the size of the bookstore since the mid ’90s and it continues to thrive.

He not only listens to his customer’s suggestions, but also contributes his own in a section entitled, Staff Picks. As is the custom in many bookstores, employees place their favorite titles on the shelves; however, Knighton has whimsically created his own sticker, the Monkey Wrench Gang Seal of Approval, to indicate which among the employee’s selections capture the flavor and spirit of Back of Beyond. A current favorite sporting the sticker is Jonathan Carroll’s The Marriage of Sticks, which Knighton plans to take with him on his upcoming trip to Portland where he will visit Carroll’s book signing.

One recent reading trend that has not escaped Knighton’s notice is the renewed avidity of children readers. He attributes this phenomenon to the Harry Potter series and the good-sized children’s section aptly meets this new demand. He says this is very exciting to see happen and he is happy to know that a new generation of readers is growing up in Moab.

Knighton’s passion for the written word extends beyond reading and selling books. He has himself contributed to the body of literature on hiking guides, essays and poems. An avid hiker, which originally drew him to Moab, he wrote Canyon Country’s LaSal Mountains Hiking and Nature Handbook and has contributed essays on environmental issues to various publications, including Harper’s and a decennial compilation edited by Wild Earth Magazine. Recently, he has eschewed essay writing and focused on poetry, including the complex form of sonnets. Nature continues to be a focal point for his writing, no matter the genre.

For an afternoon of exploring the Southwest from the comfort of an armchair, check out Back of Beyond Books, located at 83 North Main Street. The store has switched to winter hours, which means it opens at 9:00 a.m. and closes at 6:00 p.m. except for Friday and Saturday when José Knighton lets the customers decide when to call closing time.

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