Katharine Thalberg died on Jan. 6 at the Aspen Valley Hospital from cancer. I worked for Katharine at Explore Booksellers in Aspen, CO. from 1988 to 1990. She had moved to Aspen in 1973 where she opened the bookstore in 1975. Katharine was an extremely intelligent and well-read person who kept her bookstore open despite financial difficulties. She had enough energy and passion for two people. It's hard to believe that she is dead.
I've been sitting here after reading the Los Angeles Times obituary of Katharine, remembering her and her bookstore. Explore was a new bookstore, but had a great stock of books. Much better than most independent bookstores. She had a great passion for literature and would always order any book you felt should be in the store. Even when the book might come from a small press or university publisher and the discount might only give her a very small (5%) profit. She still wanted the book in the store. She was a demanding person and could be difficult to work with at times. I think this was because she was so out-spoken with her opinions and such a perfectionist. She was possessed of superior intelligence (degrees from Vassar, Stanford and USC) and had a boundless enthusiasm for literature and social justice. She did not suffer fools gladly.
I worked for her during a difficult transition period when the bookstore (a beautiful, large Victioran House on Main St. in Aspen) was being re-modelled to add an upstairs Bistro. The construction was a difficult process (in part because she kept changing her design ideas) and during one long day after the store had closed, this tough lady broke down and embraced me because she was so distressed. I was touched that she would ask for my support. Of course, I helped her as much as I could. Now the Bookstore is thriving and the upstairs Bistro is, I believe, the only vegetarian restaurant in town (in addition to having a great selection of books). If you follow the link and read the Aspen Times obituary, you'll find more comments by her friends and people who worked for her.
My time at Explore was very unique. I remember a Christmas rush where I picked out all of John Denver's books for Christmas. I had a wonderful conversation with the author Elaine Pagels (The Gnostic Gospels) right after I had read her book (recommended by Katharine, by the way). I also remember a wild signing for Donald Trump when his best-selling book "The Art of the Deal" was hot. With bodies pressing against us on all sides, I got him to admit he had never read Plato's Republic and that he'd better get to reading it soon if he wanted to write about business and society. When I told Katharine about it she thought it was hilarious.
I only knew Katharine for a few years, but I respected and admired her. Coming from the family she did (yes, she is a child of THAT Thalberg), it is remarkable what she made of herself. I've often wondered why she never wrote an autobiography. Considering how articulate she was, it certainly would have been a fascinating book. She rarely spoke of her childhood, but I remember her speaking fondly of Chaplin and others. She was passionate about literature and very proud of her bookstore. I don't think I ever saw her without a book in her purse or under her arm. She will leave her community, family and many close friends grieving for their loss. Explore Booksellers will continue under the leadership of her husband, Bill Stirling. I can't think of a better monument to her life. Goodbye, Katharine...