Utah’s Used Bookstore Battles Coronavirus, Asks For Aid

Aug 1, 2020, 10:48 PM | Updated: Sep 13, 2020, 10:30 am

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Whether it’s the epic poems from ancient history or a modern superhero movie, it’s said that all stories are essentially the same. One Utah man who’s spent his life surrounded by stories has found himself living through one as he battles enemies both seen and unseen, causing him to turn to the community for assistance in fighting off his latest challenge.

Every good story starts with a hero.

“My late mother claimed I was born reading a book,” said Ken Sanders, owner of Ken Sanders Rare Books. “I suspect that’s an exaggeration, but I don’t recall a time when I didn’t read.”

For his entire life, our brave bard has been submerged in a pool of prose.

“Then these pesky customers come in and buy them and ruin the collection!” Sanders said with a laugh.

He calls his books his “children,” and he frequently stops to point out a favorite author as he wanders the aisles, extolling their virtues or throwing out an appropriate quote.

Sanders has traded texts for over 45 years.

He said he was “wheeling and dealing” comic books as a kid, then ran his own mail-order book business as a teenager.

Typically, a business’ goal is to grow a mountain of gold — but Sanders’ objective has never been accumulation; it’s the dispensation of education.

“Money is not a god to me, it’s never been a motivation to me,” he said, while pointing to a shelf of books. “This is how we teach.”

While “Rare Books” is in the name of his business, it’s certainly not what he commits the bulk of his real estate to.  Yes, there are stacks of musty, leather-bound volumes from centuries past, and a locked case containing pricey artifacts, which help bring in the cash — but Sanders is devoted to bestowing wisdom, dedicating a towering amount of space to discounted paperbacks.

Ken Sanders demonstrates how the smell of an aging book is one thing you can't get from buying online. Ken Sanders Rare Books has been a staple of downtown Salt Lake City for the past 25 years. Some of Sanders' rare books sit in a case, but the bulk of his space is dedicated to books that are meant to be read. Sanders' shop is brimming over with books. Sanders shows how an entire wall of shop is devoted to discounted paperbacks. Sanders says his business was doing well until the coronavirus hit. Ken Sanders shows off a few of his later father's rare postcards, which he's been selling off in order to keep his doors open. Sanders has turned to the public for aid, starting a Gofundme account after his friends and customers suggested it. Sanders explains how he's reacted to the outpouring of support from the community.

“It’s a stupid idea, given what rent costs,” he said, looking at the rows of books he sells for less than $10 a piece. “I can’t possibly sell enough of these books to pay the rent, but I believe in books and literature and reading. I think independent bookstores create independent minds. I just really believe in having good books for interested people.”

Every good story needs a villain. Sanders has faced off against the most dreadful of demons: online booksellers.

“I sell them a book that they never knew existed, they never knew they wanted,” he said. “You think Amazon’s got an algorithm for that? You can’t smell the books online. You can’t get the cross-cultural conversations, with the serendipity of running into somebody in the stacks, and having an argument, a discussion, an agreement.”

Thus far, he’s kept the siege at bay. Sanders has cultivated a loyal group of customers, and said this year started off well — until an unfamiliar and intangible adversary appeared.

The coronavirus has shown no mercy, leaving him like Odysseus — lost at sea.

“We’re only allowing four people in the store at a time, and you’ve got to make an appointment,” Sanders said. “I think we could have fumbled our way through the rest of this year. I mean, I’ve done this for 45 years. I think I would’ve gone out of business without COVID before now if I was a complete and utter idiot.”

Bills, mounted. Loans, exhausted. And what was left in his pocket? In the words of a famous riddle from Tolkien: String, or nothing.

“Our sales have fallen to half,” Sanders said. “We’re working twice as hard to make half the money we’re used to.”

He’s even been selling off his birthright: his late father’s collection of rare postcards.

“They’re not store property. Legally, there’s a distinction between the bookstore and myself, but in reality, there isn’t,” Sanders said. “If I don’t have a bookstore, what use is an inheritance going to do?”

Sanders’ shop looked to go the way of the Library of Alexandria — leaving our hero to rule over the ashes of a dream.

“How do I keep the staff employed?” he asked. “How do I not go into debt deeper every single month?”

But every good story needs a twist: Sanders asked for aid.

“My customers and friends said, ‘You should do a Gofundme,'” he said.

Our hero turned reluctant; though he’s hosted countless fundraisers for others over the years, he said he’s never once held one where he’s been the beneficiary.

“No, no, I don’t want to beg for money for myself,” he said. “It’s the last thing I wanted to do.”

And though our hero may have stumbled, his knights have offered their service.

His Gofundme has steadily been racking up donations since it kicked off, leaving Sanders checking his phone for updates to a degree he considers “unhealthy.”

He said he’s been shocked by the support, and by those leaving comments about what his store has meant to their lives. In fact, the only thing that’s surprised him more has been the interactions he’s had at the cash register.

“Oh here, I want to buy this, and here’s a hundred bucks,” Sanders said, recounting what some of his customers have said. “It’s making me humble.”

Every good story needs an ending. Our hero hopes the final chapter of this story lies far beyond his castle walls, and into a distant future.

“I think I’m a metaphor for something that’s much more important to people than I could ever be,” he said.

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Utah’s Used Bookstore Battles Coronavirus, Asks For Aid