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How this ‘booktender’ has kept the family bookstore going through thick and thin

For 62 years and counting, Frost’s Books has held steady through the ups and downs of the bookstore world

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Richard Frost rings up books for a customer at Frost’s Books in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.

Richard Frost rings up books for a customer at Frost’s Books in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

In 1959, four years before he was born, Richard Frost’s destiny was already set in place.

That was the year his grandmother and grandfather, Zelma and Joseph Frost, following a successful career in the construction industry in Colorado, moved to Utah and Zelma opened a bookstore in Foothill Village in Salt Lake City.

She called it Frost’s Books.

Her motivation, according to her grandson: “She wanted a business where her children could interact with interesting people.”

* * *

More than six decades later, Richard is living proof that his grandmother’s goal was met, and then some.

He is sitting behind the counter at Frost’s Books, holding court, as it were; a third-generation bookseller — the family business passing down from his grandparents to his parents, Clarence and Rosalie, to him — who is as much a fixture as the bookshelves.

Customers walk in and he’s there if they need him. But there is nothing intense or high pressure about him. He’s like the bartenders you see in the movies: clearly approachable, but on your terms. A booktender.

It’s a trait passed down, like the store itself, from generation to generation.

“If I have a quality it’s probably being able to interact with people in a way that makes them feel valuable, or listened to,” says Richard. “That’s something my grandfather and father were good at, just being interested in people. I’m generally a curious person, so whatever someone is interested in or whatever they’re doing, I have an interest in it, and it’s not because they’re a customer, it’s because I’m interested. Anyway, I think that’s worked well for me.”

Not only has curiosity kept Frost’s Books an enduring presence on the east side of the Salt Lake Valley — an independent bookstore, no less, that has weathered the internet storm and is still standing — but it has given Richard a chance to meet an unending stream of interesting people.

“I throw everybody a softball,” he says of his benign approach to starting a conversation, “and I let them hit it just as far as they can.”

If people want to pontificate, they have the floor.

“I enjoy chatting and people sharing their feelings and what their thoughts are, even political rants,” he says. “I’m a very conservative person, but I know of at least 20 people who think I’m a raging liberal; not because or anything I’ve said, but just because I’ve listened to them without arguing.”

Sometimes it gets very personal. “I have anywhere from two to five significant conversations throughout the day, that might last 10, 15 minutes,” he says. “One customer calls me her therapist, and she does as much therapy or counseling for me as I do for her.”

Of course, at some point people have to buy something.

That’s where the true book lovers come in — those folks who choose to spend their disposable (and sometimes not disposable) income on the printed word over all else.

“The lifeblood of a bookstore is having 50 people who spend $100 to $200 in a visit,” says Richard. “Vegas would call them whales. Then you have to have, what, 200 other people who are regulars, and then you count on new people to come by and hopefully replace the old people who died or moved or whatever. But, really, you gotta have one whale a day. I don’t know if we should refer to my best customers as whales, but it just makes all the difference.”     

Richard is not oblivious to the challenges independent brick-and-mortar bookstores like his are facing in the technological revolution. At Frost’s, business is off 25% from the high-water days of the early 1990s, back when smartphones and Amazon were still just a figment of code writers’ imaginations. Other booksellers have seen an even more precipitous drop-off. He’s watched as many of his competitors have shut their doors.

He might have had to do likewise if he was still paying rent at Foothill Village. But in 2002 he bought land on the corner of 2000 East and 2700 South and moved his bookstore there. The property has since been paid off. Now, he pays rent to himself.

The staff isn’t four or five like it once was. There’s a part-time employee who fills in occasionally, but mostly it’s just him.

He takes pride in continuing the legacy his grandmother got started before he was born. “When it’s your grandparents’ name, and your parents’ name, and your name, on the front door,” he says, “it means something to maintain the name.”

Just as he takes pride in the fact that his grandmother was right: The bookstore business indeed attracts interesting people.

And so Richard Frost sits, from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, a booktender manning the counter at Frost’s Books, ready and waiting to interact with whoever walks through the door — and watching for whales.