Why you should care
Because we’ve never seen so many books per square foot in our lives.
Reported & written by Libby Coleman
Video by Nat Roe
Squat and weathered, Ken Sanders Rare Books stands resolutely in downtown Salt Lake City. At 10 a.m., the store opens its doors and a permanent folding bookcase outside that houses about 1,000 $1 books. Inside, books are packed into every crevice, aisle and display case and piled 10 or more high on every available surface.
Stretching from the floor almost to the ceiling is everything from rare Mormon works (one morning, a customer inquires about “fringe” Mormon folklore) to cheap used paperbacks. The store’s charismatic 65-year-old owner, Ken Sanders, who sports a Santa Claus-esque gray beard, is an unapologetic book lover. In just one day, he bought 6,000 books. “Some people say I have a problem,” he says. “I don’t have a problem.” The shop houses an incredible 100,000 books, and there are far more in storage off-site, Sanders says.
The shop’s varied inventory draws a variety of customers. One visitor, Eric Leveque from Los Angeles, who is browsing the aviation section, says Ken Sanders Rare Books reminds him of old LA with its eclectic cultural offerings. Another customer, who once frequented the shop but recently moved to Brooklyn, has returned to find cheap detective fiction.
Sanders opened up the current location in 1997 after a nearby previous incarnation, Cosmic Aeroplane, closed. One of the few independent bookstores in Salt Lake City, it’s strength “is probably Ken’s curiosity, knowledge, interest and willingness to explore,” says Frank McEntire, a longtime customer from Taylorsville, Utah. An aisle for Latter-day Saints books runs parallel to an aisle featuring books on Native Americans, nature, wilderness, and fantasy and science fiction. You’ll also find pamphlets from 1984 like “The Voice of Dissent” and a 1930 LDS centennial exhibition program on founder Joseph Smith. And if you have $2,500 to spare, there’s a complete set of Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books.
If you’re looking for books by Utah authors, Sanders can easily rattle off 10 names. He also runs a small publishing business to champion local artistic causes and help raise the profile of Utahans. “If you’re not on one of the coasts,” he explains, “you’re not going to get any credit doing any art.”
A former member of the radical environmentalist group Earth First, the left-leaning Sanders doesn’t shy away from politics in conservative Utah. Each year, a Brigham Young University professor brings his students to the bookstore in a bus, Sanders says, where he “terrorizes” them with his liberal ideology. And he’s not a fan of Amazon — when they come knocking for orders to be filled, Sanders deletes them.
Does he ever think about retiring and giving up his store? “What would I do?” he says. “I’ve got books.”