Explore’s director of programming, Jeff Bernstein, by the book
Explore Booksellers needed a particular person with a particular set of skills for this particular job. After COVID restrictions were lifted, and special events and gatherings returned, Aspen’s Explore Booksellers was in search of someone who could reinvigorate their once-thriving event and social calendar.
It turned out to be their former attorney.
Jeff Bernstein is now a constant presence at the bookstore. But customers might be more likely to recognize Mattie, his cherished Australian shepherd. Bernstein’s unusual path to the bookstore might rival some of the thrilling books surrounding him.
Chapter One: East Coast
Born in New Rochelle, New York, Bernstein attended Vassar College. After spending his entire youth up and down the East Coast, Bernstein was ready for something different. He joined the Peace Corps and taught physics in Malaysia.
“I took a two-month course to learn Malay, the language of Malaysia,” he said. “It was funny. I couldn’t understand the kids very well even after the course with their vernacular. However, the kids were delightful with me. I once had some kids give me a Civet cat that I kept as a pet. The school also didn’t have full-time electricity. If I needed to run a science experiment, I would have them turn on the generator for an hour if they could.”
Bernstein then applied from Malaysia to Harvard Las School. “One of my recommendations was from a typewriter written in Malay. I think that sealed the deal for me as I didn’t have the typical scores needed to get in.”
“Harvard was thrilling and tedious. I was in the library six or seven hours after school each day. It was thrilling because there all these incredible people walking the hallways. Harvard had the greatest legal minds in the country. And it wasn’t cut throat at all. Other students were so helpful and courteous,” he said.
Chapter Two: Law Career
Bernstein’s first job out of law school was general counsel with the Fund for Public Interest Research in from 1985-88. This group was part of a consortium of non-profit groups for environmental and consumer protection based in Boston at the time.
This group would decades later move to Denver and purchase a bookstore in Aspen called Explore Booksellers in 2017.
Bernstein followed this job with a three-year stint at a small non-profit advising worker-owned companies. He once spoke with Cezar Chavez about democratic worker ownership and the farm workers in his Boston office.
Chapter Three: The Jungle of Physics
“I decided I wasn’t crazy about being a lawyer and wanted to go back to the teaching I did in the Peace Corps,” he said.
So he taught physics from 1990 to 1993 at Los Angeles High School.
“Even though many of them were gang members, they did not bring gang membership into the classroom,” he said.
Then he got an offer to teach physics, chemistry and math at a modern orthodox Jewish high school in Los Angeles. This kept him occupied for seven years and took him down a different journey of thought.
“The school was very progressive in having students make decisions for their own learning,” he said. “They followed Kohlberg’s theory of moral development that focuses on how children develop morality and moral reasoning. The school thought the curriculum would help children be more thoughtful moral actors.”
Chapter Four: Sacramento
Bernstein met a woman who lived in Sacramento. They married, and he moved to California’s capital and got a job in the state Legislature with then-assembly member Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara.
“They wanted a lawyer for their Judiciary Committee and hired me. It was a great two years.”
Chapter Five: Seattle
His wife got a promotion to a job in Seattle at the end of 2004. “We lived in the Queen Anne neighborhood, the most beautiful neighborhood ever,” he said. “I taught math for a year at Cleveland High School.”
The next woman to walk into Bernstein’s life was Mattie (Matilda Jean), his beloved Australian shepherd.
“I was a house husband for the next several years. Mattie and I just took off every day and enjoyed the city and neighborhoods.”
Chapter Six: Back to Sac
Mattie became the only woman in Bernstein’s life after he divorced. Hannah-Beth Jackson was now a state senator, and she asked Bernstein if he wanted his old job back. He relocated with Mattie to Sacramento in 2018.
“This was Jackson’s last term, as California has term limits,” he said. “It was perfect. I was going to turn 65 during her final year, and it was an excellent end to my working career. I would retire, had a small pension from the state of California, it would be lovely.”
And so it came to be in 2021.
Chapter Seven: The Book Reopens
One morning he was talking on the phone with the executive director of the public interest network from his first job after law school.
“He said, ‘I know you are traveling across the country with Mattie now that you have the time. Why not stop in Aspen and do some hiking?’ I did. After a few days he called me and said, ‘Do you love it? Want to stay forever? How would you like to be the director of event programming for our bookstore?’”
Bernstein moved three blocks from the bookstore and got back to work.
Chapter Seven: Current Life
Relaxing in his favorite chair at the front of the bookstore where he often reads the newspaper, Bernstein reflected on his ambitions for the store.
“I’m trying to put the bookstore back in the entertainment lineup for Aspen. People think, oh who’s playing at Belly Up or who’s speaking at the Aspen Institute? I want them to think, who’s speaking at Explore,” he said.
Highlights of Bernstein’s new event programming have included standing-room only engagements such as when Congressman Adam Schiff spoke and when Amory Lovins presented about the Aspen airport. “The crowd was amazing and so engaged,” he added.
Bernstein has big dreams for the bookstore. “I’d love to get Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia; Doug Peacock, who just wrote about the grizzlies in Yellowstone; Benjamin Todd “Ben” Jealous, the executive director of the Sierra Club; Ralph Nader would be fascinating; and why not Greta Thunberg, as well?”