The storied history of Aspen’s Explore Booksellers |

The storied history of Aspen’s Explore Booksellers

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Explore Booksellers will host a talk on its history Wednesday evening.
Aspen Times file |

If You Go …

What: ‘Storied History of Explore,’ presented by Explore Booksellers

Who: Bill Stirling, Mark Billingsley, Margaret Durney

Where: Explore Booksellers, Aspen

When: Wednesday, July 13, 5:30 p.m.

How much: Free

More info:

Back in March, as it began presenting a more robust public events lineup, Explore Booksellers put together a low-key presentation on its history. To the surprise of the store’s programmers, a crowd of about 40 curious patrons showed up and packed its book-lined rooms.

So — back by popular demand — Explore is doing an encore tonight, with former Aspen Mayor Bill Stirling, longtime bookseller Mark Billingsley and book buyer Margaret Durney talking about this mountain town cultural gem through the decades.

Stirling, whose wife Katherine Thalberg founded the bookstore more than 40 years ago, will offer a portrait of Thalberg, her vision for the store and how it became an intellectual and political hub for the town.

“It’s a moral compass for the town because of Katherine’s stance on things,” said Stirling, recalling the store hosting the first vegetarian restaurant in town and also becoming the target of pro-fur picketers during the heated fur debates of the late 1980s.

The little bookstore became a cultural institution due to Thalberg’s passion for the written word, he said.

“Her father (film producer Irving Thalberg) was an inveterate reader and storyteller through making films,” Stirling said. “She made her mark in life by starting this. … As a kid, she’d be dropped off at the bookstore in Beverly Hills, and they’d pick her up six hours later.”

Thalberg deferred to her more extroverted husband on public speaking duties and introducing authors at book-signings. So Stirling has many stories to tell about the author talks he presented for about 25 years at the store — hosting luminaries from Tom Friedman to Donald Trump and Gloria Steinem.

The presentation will walk through the Explore’s place in the recent history of the book business, as well. It was one of five bookstores in Aspen in 1975 during the pre-Amazon age. And, following Thalberg’s death in 2006, the billionaire Sam Wyly saved it from closing by buying it. When Wyly was forced to sell it due to financial losses from an SEC lawsuit, it appeared Aspen was going to lose its last bookstore. But last year, a nonprofit consortium stepped in and saved it again.

Stirling said the presentation will walk attendees through that history as well as the historic Main Street Victorian house it calls home.

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