July CATALYST’s story on Salt Lake’s iconic bookstore, the Cosmic Aeroplane, (“Cosmic Aeroplane: A Love Story,” a memoir by James Taylor) stirred many memories among the over-40 locals, and was a counterculture history lesson for everyone else. One player who was inadequately addressed in the story was co-owner Bruce Roberts. His sister, Becky, shares with us the role Bruce played in the store and in the broader community.
Bruce Roberts’ financial investment and guidance in developing the bookstore component, and eventually expanding to other departments, was pivotal in the success of the first alternative bookstore in Salt Lake City.
Bruce had an early interest in writing, journalism and current events. He served as sports editor for his high school paper and attended the University of Utah on academic journalism scholarships. While on the university’s Daily Utah Chronicle he wrote as sports editor, and later as rock editor.
As a member of the Student Activities Center at the University of Utah, Bruce brought such musical groups as Cold Blood, Joy of Cooking, Joan Baez and The Grateful Dead to various campus venues.
He became a political activist, AKA rabble rouser [as referenced in the story], at an early age helping to organize rallies, and various protest events to include the Stop the MX Missile movement, rallies against the US involvement in Central American civil wars, and assisting a myriad of environmental organizations. He later maintained and shared that political awareness through products and events at the bookstore.
Bruce was responsible for all print ads, (indeed most of those displayed in the Taylor article), radio ad content and, after 1982, the annual Cosmic Aeroplane calander given free to customers. While at the Aeroplane he brought a number of significant musical artists to the Fairground Coliseum and other venues, introducing reggae and punk music to Salt Lake City. He arranged for a number of popular authors to participate in book-signing events at the bookstore. As a former employee wrote at the time of Bruce’s death: “Bruce was a great boss. He paid fair wages. He provided ‘Cadillac’ insurance before the term was coined. As a matter of course, he practiced tolerance and promoted diversity and transparency …Bruce never micromanaged, he led—with courage, confidence, and charisma.”
The closing of the Cosmic Aeroplane was indeed due to financial contraints as noted, but also due to competition from the first large bookstore chain, Walden Books, opening in Salt Lake City.
Following the end of Cosmic Aeroplane, Bruce purchased and operated Wasatch Book Distribution. He later worked in sales for Fulcrum Books, and Nancy Suib Wholesale Distribution. He owned and operated Big Moon Traders, his own publishing and distribution business. At the time of his death Bruce was employed as sales manager for the University of Utah Press. He was proud of landing this position as “an old white guy.” Chosen because of his expansive knowledge of the book trade, he was and is sorely missed there. Indeed, his impact on the book industry and small business in Salt Lake City has been deemed significant enough by the University of Utah Marriott Library to archive his papers in their Special Collections Department.
And, as correctly stated, the occult was not a priority for Bruce, nor most of the other Cosmic staff members.
—Becky S. Roberts