Nonprofit buyer emerges as prospective buyer for Aspen’s Explore Booksellers

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Explore Booksellers is a beloved Aspen institution. A national nonprofit organization and its affiliates aim to keep it that way with a $5 million purchase.
Aubree Dallas/The Aspen Times | Aubree Dallas/The Aspen Times

The apparent white knight for Aspen’s Explore Booksellers is a consortium of national nonprofit organizations that fight for environmental, social justice and consumer protection causes.

A limited liability corporation established by nonprofits under the umbrella of the Public Interest Network has a contract to buy Explore Booksellers and Bistro for $5 million. The proposed deal must be approved by a judge in the Texas bankruptcy case of Samuel Wyly, who owns the bookstore through Explore Booksellers and Bistro Real Estate LLC. The judge will review the proposed sale today. If approved, the sale is scheduled to close Jan. 16.

The story of Public Interest Network’s possible purchase of the Aspen bookstore reads almost like a fairy tale. Staff members of the groups within the network have visited Aspen to ski the week prior to Christmas week since 1984, according to Doug Phelps, chairman of Public Interest Network’s board of directors. Between 300 and 700 staff members and alumni converge on Aspen each year for the event, with an ever-changing lineup over the years due to turnover, Phelps said. One constant characteristic over the 30 years has been the attendees’ affinity for Explore and its bistro, he said.

Phelps said his son sent him a note last summer informing him that Explore was for sale. Phelps wasn’t able to investigate a purchase until he was in Aspen for the December ski trip. He contacted real estate agent Robert Ritchie, whose daughter used to work with one of the organizations in the network, on the same day Explore went under contract to a prospective buyer for $4.6 million.

Because the sale is being handled through a bankruptcy proceeding, listing real estate broker Karen Setterfield was able to continue negotiations with prospective buyers. Public Interest Network and its affiliates offered $5 million cash and the other prospective buyer dropped out.

The nonprofits have an existing investment partnership called 1543 LLC that handles their endowment fund. “We’re always looking for things that are benign or positive to invest in,” Phelps said.

But why buy a bookstore?

“We specialize in lost causes,” Phelps said. “We’re the most logical group to keep a bookstore going.”

The survival of an independent bookstore actually dovetails with parts of the Public Interest Network’s mission, he said. The organizations’ core mission is to share ideas that benefit humans. The network’s website said it helps create an “activist pipeline.” Aspen attracts a lot of influential people that could be inspired in the bookstore and its events.

“Books and ideas are about as subversive as it gets,” Phelps said.

He was hesitant to talk about the operations of Explore because his team hasn’t been able to outline plans yet for the bookstore staff. The new owners will “continue everything as is” and add more programming, such as book signings and TED Talks — popular, short, dynamic presentations.

The consortium realizes it also must invest in operations at the bookstore as part of the transition, according to Phelps.

“We look at this as a program investment at first,” he said. “The goal would be to get it to break even as quickly as possible.”

No operating funds from the Public Interest Network and its affiliates will be used for the purchase or affected by the deal, Phelps said. It’s strictly an investment from their endowment funds.

The Public Interest Network’s executive committee approved the purchase, but not without ribbing Phelps first. He said they asked what he was going to propose buying next — a metropolitan newspaper that’s as much of a moneymaker as a bookstore?