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Sugar House Journal

Bookstores help bring community to life says longtime business owner

Mar 29, 2021 12h03 ● By Daniel Smith

Pam Pedersen talks about how she came to own Central Book Exchange, how her store and Sugar House have both changed over time, and her worries, hopes and ideas for the future of Sugar House. (Photo courtesy Pam Pedersen)

By Daniel Smith | [email protected]

Pam Pedersen has been the owner of Central Book Exchange since 2005. When she took over the store, she knew she would have to drastically change the business model, the inventory, and practically everything about the store, save the name. As her store changed and grew, so did Sugar House, and after 15 years of watching the expansion from her storefront, Pedersen is worried for Sugar House’s future.

Central Book Exchange has been in the same location—on 1100 East and just shy of 2100 South—for 52 years. Originally, it was a paperback book exchange, with a mail-order service which specialized in delivering romance novels across the country. While the service did expand to include mystery novels, thrillers and the like, it was still primarily a mail-order exchange when Pedersen walked in and offered to buy the store in 2005.

Pedersen had wanted to own a bookstore ever since she was a child, and she had read an interview with the store’s original owner in a local paper and got the sense that he was fed up with running the store. “He was bemoaning the past and how so many people used to come in,” Pedersen said. “Reading between the lines, you could tell he was done.” She made him an offer and he accepted. “It was a lucky happenstance.” 

New ownership brought new life to the store. “The old model didn’t have enough money coming in to run a business,” Pedersen said, “and it was very cash poor. I quickly realized that. . .there had to be a new model that was more modern, where people could get books that they needed and still pay a lot less, but keep the business a business.” She started carrying hardcover books, shifted focus away from the outdated mail-order service—which declined in popularity around the late 1980s—and toward the storefront, and revamped the business model. 

Roughly 15 years later, Central Book Exchange is one of several shops in the area, a fact which Pedersen welcomes. “That’s what my dream always was when we were the only ones here. To have that feel is so precious to me. I can’t tell you how fun that is. . .I love how many people are walking around now.” Back in 2005, there was little more to see than Central Book Exchange, the Soup Kitchen, and what Pedersen refers to as “The Pit,” a pit of rubble and gravel nearby. 

But she acknowledged that the increased foot traffic has come at a cost. “It’s like you're in a freight train heading toward a wall when you look at what’s happening here.” Pedersen lamented the many high-rise apartment buildings cropping up in Sugar House in recent years. “I think that they should stop building high-rise apartments. There’s no way that there are going to be more people wanting to live in expensive high-rise apartments.” She noted that updates in infrastructure have not kept pace with the increase in population and traffic, the shortage of parking, and the apparent lack of planning, which she said might be the most distressing part of it all.

“Our city does not have a planning division, that’s what I think,” she said. “In Salt Lake, we cycle through one bad decision after another.” For instance, Pedersen said that the city tried to start construction on the road in front of her store just as businesses were reopening after the initial COVID-19 lockdown. Luckily, and through no small effort of local business owners such as herself, the construction was postponed. But it is these sorts of decisions that prompts Pedersen to ask, “Where is the master plan?” Sugar House does have a master plan, but it has not been updated since Pedersen became the owner of Central Book Exchange in 2005.

Pedersen thinks there are a few commonsense measures the city could take to help local businesses and prevent Sugar House from becoming too populous. “I think there should always be all the things you need to live within a walking distance,” she said. “So when they rip down the corner over there with the laundromat, it should be a rule that a laundromat gets to be in the bottom [of the high-rise apartment].” Pedersen also said that well-timed improvement of the infrastructure and public transportation could help ease up the wear on the roads and the rising demand for more parking.

And then there is the importance of bookstores in the community. “Books change the world. They keep people sane,” Pedersen said. “A city without a bookstore is dead…That’s how [people] judge the city—by the bookstores,” she said, adding, “By the bookstores, by where you can walk around, by the people you meet.” Pedersen hopes that Sugar House can retain its bookstores and lively local business community as it moves forward into an uncertain future.

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