Cherished bookstore forces hard decisions
September 21, 2006
Like many others in town, we are saddened and a bit scared by the potential demise of Explore Booksellers. Few, if any, businesses in town are so filled with character, and few have become as much a part of Aspen’s identity.For a variety of reasons, however, we can’t help feeling a little uncomfortable with the idea of the city of Aspen “rescuing” Explore. As some have said in recent letters to the editor, the very idea of a local government purchasing private businesses, at least under normal circumstances, is questionable. But these are not normal circumstances. As others have noted, a small, independently owned bookstore has virtually no place in Aspen’s white-hot real estate market and will likely disappear without some kind of community-oriented intervention.Fortunately, an effort is under way to retain the property as a bookstore. Former Aspen Mayor Bill Stirling, husband of the late Katharine Thalberg, who founded and ran Explore, is trying to assemble a group of private investors to pony up the $5.2 million and buy the store from Thalberg’s daughters.Stirling has approached the City Council for help, in the form of a short-term loan to close the sale while he rounds up investors. Though Mayor Helen Klanderud opposed the idea, other council members were more receptive. But even they wondered why Stirling was in such a hurry, and they had legitimate questions for him: Isn’t that a lot of money for a bookstore? Who are the other investors? Will the family give Stirling and his collaborators any kind of priority, or at least a certain amount of time to put together a formal offer?There are a disturbing number of unknowns and, potentially, a lot of public money at stake here.The Aspen Times has contacted Thalberg’s daughter, Brooke Anderson, who has managed the store since her mother’s death, to ask about the family’s views of the situation. But she has been unwilling to say much beyond the fact that the family can no longer run the bookstore. Fair enough.But if this community, or the city of Aspen, is to step up and invest in Explore Booksellers, then it seems appropriate for the family to let the community know if it has a fighting chance.Will the family give Stirling time to get his offer together? Will a $5 million offer that keeps Thalberg’s bookstore alive have any prayer against a larger offer from a real estate developer? What if anything would the family be willing to do to preserve the bookstore? Or does the family, for its own reasons, plan to simply sell to the highest bidder?We’d like to know, and we surmise a few others would too.