Stranger than fiction

For 33 years, Tom Peters has served Boulder—and the beat culture literati—at Beat Book Shop

Boulder's Beat Book Shop

Truth is stranger than fiction for Tom Peters. At least, that’s how it seems when you talk to the owner of Boulder’s venerable Beat Book Shop. Peters, who is also a published poet and a longtime fan of punk and alternative rock, has been selling books and records from his shop on Pearl Street for more than three decades; and along the way he’s gathered some stories.

There was the time when guitarist Joe Perry of Aerosmith visited the shop and asked Peters if he could get him a first-edition of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Peters says Perry agreed to put him on a guest list so that he could deliver the book directly to the rocker at his concert at Fiddler’s Green; but when Peters called the venue to confirm that he was actually on the list, he wasn’t—so Perry never got the novel, which, according to Peters, has a value around $8,500.

“Joe grew up in Boston, and he said he wanted the book,” explains Peters. “But I can’t carry around a valuable book at a hot concert unless I know I’m definitely going to be able to hand it off to the buyer.”

The list of famous writers and musicians who have visited the Beat Book Shop is impressive. During the many years the store has been in existence, beat culture literati including Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima, Lucia Berlin and Anne Waldman all dropped in at various points to browse its racks. Musicians are also drawn to the store. Peters reels off a list of visitors including the Scottish troubadour Donovan, Robyn Hitchcock, Abra Moore, Lady Miss Kier (of the group Deee-Lite), Patti Smith, Glen Hansard and members of the band Yo La Tengo.

The Beat Book Shop has been visited by many beat culture literari like Allen Ginsberg (pictured far left with Tom Peters) and Peter Orlovsky. Courtesy Tom Peters. (Photo credit: JJ)

“The shop allows me the opportunity to meet many interesting people,” Peters shares. “[Glen Hansard, of Irish band The Frames] has been buying books from me for a long time now. He and his [then] girlfriend [Markéta Irglová of the band The Swell Season] stopped by when they were in town. They were in the movie Once. … A lot of artists who were big in the ’90s came in. Abra Moore who was in the movie Slacker [and also a member of Poi Dog Pondering before launching her solo musical career] came in. She also performed at my poetry series. The singer [Lady Miss Kier] and the DJ from Deee-Lite stopped by and bought a bunch of poetry books and records. The poet Ai [Ogawa] has also visited.”

Peters says he has about 25,000 used books in his shop in addition to vinyl records. A native of Michigan and the son of a teacher and a newspaper writer, he opened the Beat Book Shop in 1990, shortly after graduating from The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. The store, which has had three locations on Pearl Street since first opening, is currently located (downstairs) at 1200 Pearl St.,  #10. Peters cites his interest in reading as part of his impetus for selling books.  

“I would go to the library a lot as a kid. I always loved books,” Peters relates. “As I got older I read even more. For the three years before starting at Naropa, I read an entire book every 24 hours. I read a thousand books in three years. I’d start one and finish it every day. There might have been a few times when the books took me a couple days to finish, but I love reading.”

In addition to reading, Peters is an avid music aficionado, which is reflected in the music he plays in his shop and the records he sells there. During the years he spent living and working in Los Angeles, prior to settling in Boulder, he says he took in many live musical performances on the coast.  

“I saw live music in LA every day and collected records vigorously while I was there. I would stop at a store and buy a book and a record every night,” he says.

Peters’ obsession with collecting music and books dates back to his youth.

“I started buying tapes as a teenager. I had hundreds of tapes that I’d carry back and forth to my car every day in a wooden box that I made. It doubled as an armrest. Over the years I’ve learned a lot about what makes books valuable. Not just what book to read, but how much they are worth and what about them contributes to their price. I retain information about all that stuff. I’ve been doing it for 35 years. The longer you do it, the more you learn about your trade.”

Covering the cost of a lease on Pearl Street doesn’t allow for much downtime and requires Peters to stay focused on his job, which he says he still loves.

“I work harder now than I ever have before. We mostly keep the lights on by selling books from the store. I figure about 90% of my business is done in here. Online sales might cover the expense of the shop for about two months during a good year. I have to work seven days a week to do this, but I have the same job that I had 33 years ago, which is great. I mean I’ve worked continuously for 33 years at the same job on Pearl Street. I don’t know how many people can say that.”

Peters says that January and February are his slowest months for sales. He also notes that he has a few autographed books by Jack Kerouac (although not a signed first-edition copy of On The Road, which with an original dust jacket, he estimates would be worth about $25,000).