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Ken Sanders: Detective, TV Celebrity & Bookseller

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — No one could say Ken Sanders’ life selling books has been mundane.

The 68-year-old bookseller with a distinctive 1847-style beard and a penchant for storytelling tells tales of selling books at a head shop, befriending famous authors, appraising on national television and playing a lead role in a real-life detective story — and then there was the time he said a book thief threatened to remove one of his body parts.

Sanders said he started selling comic books in grade school and by 15 or 16 was in the book trade. He had mail-order ads in the underground comic books of the day.

“My mother said I was born with a book in my hand,” Sanders said.

In the 70s, he brought books to Salt Lake’s headshop, the Cosmic Aeroplane.

In 1980 he started publishing books. His biggest success, by far, was a reprint of Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” illustrated by comic artist R. Crumb.

It was at a low point of his life – getting a divorce and losing his home – that he opened his brick-and-mortar store, Ken Sanders’ Rare Books.

Ken Sanders’ Rare Books

“I fell to the bottom of a bottomless pit and it took me 10 years to climb back out of it,” Sanders said. “No, there was no plan (to open a store). What I was thinking about was emigrating to Australia and leaving this country.”

Asked if he’s glad he didn’t move to Australia, Sanders recalled a Gary Larsen cartoon showing the Devil standing next to a man and two doors labeled “Damned if you do” and “Damned if you don’t.”

“’Come on, hurry up. Make up your mind’ (the Devil says.) It’s one of those you know,” Sanders said. “I don’t know. Australia sounds nice.”

A few years ago he was invited to appraise on national TV, on PBS’ “The Antiques Roadshow” and still makes appearances on the program.

It was during his tenure as the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America security chair that he tracked down notorious book thief John Gilkey.

“I’m pretty much obsessive about books, about life, about whatever it is,” Sanders said. “I doggedly spent three years of my life (tracking him down).”

The story became the book “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much,” by Allison Hoover Bartlett.

“The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” by Allison Hoover Bartlett.

After Sanders had taunted another literary con artist he received a voicemail threatening him with the loss of a body part. The con man had ties to Russia and a New York Post article linked him to the suspicious death of a New York City rare books dealer.

“For months after that, I would look for Russians by the trees in the back of the building,” he said.

Asked what books mean to him, Sanders said simply, “life.”