Explore Booksellers has a buyer
January 29, 2007
ASPEN Aspen landmark Explore Booksellers is under contract for sale in March to Dallas billionaire and local philanthropist Sam Wyly. Monday’s announcement effectively stopped speculation about the fate of the Main Street bookstore and bistro, whose owner and founder, Katharine Thalberg, died in January 2006. It went on the market in September for $5.2 million, spurring public concern that the Victorian building that houses the shop would go to another use.
Members of the Wyly family, however, said they don’t plan to change a thing about the business, although differences between the bookstore’s founder and the pending owner are apparent. Thalberg was a crusading progressive thinker on the far left of the political spectrum. The new owner has bankrolled Republican candidates and helped fund massive political campaigns, such as the one against John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. Even so, current employees and the sellers of Explore said politics doesn’t make a difference to them, and they are happy the bookstore will stay the same. “Explore doesn’t have a political point of view, it’s an independent bookstore,” said Thalberg’s daughter Brooke Anderson, who managed the deal. “The Wylys are buying the store because they love it. I worked on John Kerry’s presidential campaign. I’m Katharine Thalberg’s daughter. And I’m confident the Wylys are the right people to take over Explore.”Thalberg was known in the community for her liberal leanings, from her unsuccessful campaign to ban fur sales in Aspen to bringing an all-vegetarian restaurant to town. In March, the bookstore will transfer to a man who spent $140,000 bankrolling Republicans in the last two election cycles, according to opensecrets.org, and who spent $2.5 million campaigning against John McCain in the 2000 presidential primary election.When the sale goes through to Sagacity LLC an entity Wyly and his wife, Cheryl, control Explore will be just another of many properties the couple owns.
Pitkin County approved the Wylys’ plan to build nine homes on a 245-acre Woody Creek ranch in 2001, and the couple has supported institutions such as the animal shelter to the tune of $600,000. Nationally, Wyly and his brother, Charles J. Wyly – also a regular Aspen visitor – have caught flak for allegations of tax evasion while under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service and the Securities and Exchange Commission. According to a 2005 Wall Street Journal article, the Isle of Man – a tiny island between England and Ireland – is home to numerous Wyly trusts “named for locations in and around Aspen” to shelter tens of millions of dollars in assets from U.S. taxes.The Wylys would not answer any questions directly. Instead, they faxed a three-paragraph statement expressing excitement about owning the bookstore and keeping it in existence. Explore staff members said they have seen Sam Wyly sitting on the floor at the store reading books on numerous occasions. “My mother and the Wylys have a very important thing in common, and that is the recognition of the importance of an independent bookstore in the community and a love of healthy, delicious vegetarian food,” Anderson said.
The announcement came after former Aspen Mayor Bill Stirling, Thalberg’s husband, tried unsuccessfully in the past few months to round up a group of private investors to buy the store from Thalberg’s daughters. “Without knowing any of the particulars of the offer, I just have to step back and say it’s great that a buyer came along who appears to have the best intentions,” Stirling said. “Getting to this point was obviously one of those mixes of seller, brokers and buyer working together to achieve a common goal, the goal of the whole community.”Details of the sale were not released, so the sale price is undisclosed, as is the question of whether the contract specifies keeping Explore as it is. The business has a prime location in the building at 221 E. Main St., where it has operated since 1977. It has been a popular place for locals to gather, browse books or magazines, and eat vegetarian cuisine. It also has served as a venue for numerous literary events, book-signings and other activities over the years. The property is designated historic, is in the city’s historic downtown overlay district, and is zoned for mixed uses.Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org