Utah Stories

Moab’s Back of Beyond Books Proves that Indie Book Sellers Can Still Make It

Offering expert advice and dealing in rare Americana books, Back of Beyond has found a niche in Moab.


Owner Andy Nettell stands among the shelves at Back of Beyond in Moab, Utah. Photos by Richard Markosian

“There are two ways to die in the desert,” says Andy Nettell; “thirst and drowning.” He is repeating one of his recent summaries of a favorite book called The Secret Life of Water, by Craig Childs. Nettell is without a doubt a book lover and enthusiast, and his joy of books is contagious.

Books are losing ground to electronic media, and independent bookstores are falling by the wayside. Retail is dying, and most retailers have to go online to survive. Blah, blah, blah… Andy Nettell has heard it all before. But he’s not afraid because his business is thriving. How could the former owner of a CD shop, and former Park Service Ranger, have anything to fear from new technology? “You remember those shiny disc things we used to use? That was my business,” he says, “but I’ve adapted.The number one rule for staying in business is to always be adapting.”

Nettell happily exited the world of selling new and used CDs and entered the book business about ten years ago. He did well because he knew his customers’ demographics and interests. Moab, at the time, already had an environmental, left-leaning Ed Abbey bookshop, so he opened a store across the street that focused on fiction and new and used books. He thought to also turn his bookshop into a coffee bar, where he roasted his own beans. “I knew I couldn’t be like the place across the street, so I found a unique niche,” says Nettell.

His business was doing so well, he eventually bought Back of Beyond Books, across the street, in 2005. “I did a lot of Jaywalking back then,” he jokes. “Then, the Great Recession happened and nobody wanted to buy books anymore. This was about the same time everyone started buying their books on Amazon.”

One might assume that Nettell would read the writing on the wall (and in the newspapers), and find a way to get out. “But I started learning more and more about the antiquarian book business, focusing my efforts on the Colorado Plateau, rare books and documents on the John Wesley Powell expedition, early-edition Ed Abbey books, Native American and Western Americana.”
Nettell closed his first shop, but he used his time to make a routine of seeking out rare books and documents, and even dabbling in Old Books of Mormon and early Mormon literature and pamphlets.

He became friends with Ken Sanders, whom he says he has the utmost respect for. “Ken is of course the greatest rare book expert in Utah, and he knows the business and goes to all of the book shows.” Nettell says he now attends six of the largest book shows annually (including Seattle, Oakland, Pasadena, Denver, Albuquerque, Twin Cities), but he doesn’t attend the “huge ones back East that Ken goes to.”

Nettell says that in the very slow retail months he can still do a great business online and through his network of buyers. He has a newsletter, sending out beautifully printed catalogs to around 800 subscribers who are previous buyers and collectors of books, documents and rare literature.

He describes his daily tasks in keeping up on the new authors, trends and interests of his customers, as well as maintaining his online business and website. Back of Beyond Books carries titles on organic farming and urban farmers, as well as tiny home construction, hay bail home construction, and backyard chickens. Many of his books are new titles which could be described as alternative, but certainly must cater to the DIY spirit of Moabites. Still, it seems unlikely that new authors could get proper circulation and distribution in the saturated online e-book market.

The laws of supply and demand certainly apply to books and authors. Cormac McCarthy, a reclusive Texas author, couldn’t be found in many book shops, and his books soon became incredibly popular, with everyone wanting to buy and collect his titles. When the publisher printed more copies, suddenly saturating the market, no one was interested.

Current best selling authors, besides Abbey, of course, include Ken Kesey, Wendell Berry (whom everyone should read), and Terry Tempest Williams, who was teaching a satellite course for the University of Utah until recently. Williams will soon be attending the Yale Divinity College of studies and collaboration.

The newest up-and-comers include Amy Irvine, who has only one title, Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land, which is considered an heir to Abbey’s Desert Solitaire; and Craig Childs.  It’s clear that Back of Beyond Books will continue flourishing as long as it remains passionately owner-operated. Booksellers, like tour guides, know how to present an intriguing world, training our eyes to see significant details through careful curation.

The world of great books is far superior to the uncurated online tech world of blogs and rants. The best guides are found in little indie bookshops like Back of Beyond.

, , ,

Join our newsletter.
Stay informed.

Related Articles