Monday, December 01, 2014

About Utah: Ken Sanders — a rare kind of book dealer

Published: Sunday, Nov. 2 2014 8:20 p.m. MST

Ken Sanders, center, poses with his trusted staff: left to right, Katie Tschanz, Kent Tschanz, Esther Cannon, James Long and Travis Low.
Lee Benson, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — If you love books as much as Ken Sanders — although that’s probably not possible — here’s some good news: Books are not dead, and neither, for that matter, are bookstores.
Want proof? Drive over to 268 S. 200 East in Salt Lake City and walk inside Ken Sanders Rare Books. Not only is the OPEN sign on out front, but inside they’re expanding. Ken points to the back wall where they recently erected 8-foot-high bookshelves to help accommodate the more than 10,000 and counting mass-trade paperbacks he keeps in stock and sells for $3 to $10.
“No way could we ever do enough volume in cheap paperback books to run the empire,” shrugs Ken, “but I don’t care because we have to have those books for the teenagers and 30-somethings who come in and buy them because that’s what they can afford.”
Other customers, the ones who keep the business afloat, do commerce in the shop’s 90,000 or so more substantially priced books, including a dazzling variety of first editions, among them the occasional mint condition 1830 Book of Mormon (going price these days: about $80,000. Every year, Ken buys and sells two or three).
“It’s quite remarkable, the different types of people who come in the store,” says Ken. “They might have six different electronic devices to get information on but they’re still buying books.”
And so is he. For every book he sells, he purchases 10.
“One day we’ll bring in one too many and we’ll collapse, just sink into the earth,” he smiles. “People will say, ‘Didn’t a bookstore used to be there?’ ”
* * *
Sixty-two-year-old Ken Sanders is a gift from the 1960s, a living, breathing product of the beat generation who counts the late Edward Abbey as a close friend, has poet laureates on his speed dial and never met the book he didn’t want to take to bed with him.
He’s loved books and loved to collect them since right after he first learned to read. His parents, Stan — owner of Stan Sanders Priced-Rite Trophies — and Eleanor, kept the house filled with books, and by the time oldest son Ken was in grade school he was already wheeling and dealing in comic books.
At Granite High School he read so much so often they started a new humanities class just for him.
He didn’t go on to college at the University of Utah, because other than the reading part he considered “school” and “prison” to be synonyms.
“Besides, every school I went to folded, Woodrow Wilson Elementary, Central Junior High and Granite High,” he announces, not without glee. “The U. should thank me for not going there.”
He started a mail-order business in comics, science fiction, monster, fantasy and Mad magazines that he ran out of his bedroom when he was 15 years old — along with the obligatory legal notice that you had to be 18 to purchase what he was selling.
When he was in his 20s he became a partner in the Cosmic Aeroplane, the hippie head shop on First South that became the rage of the age. It was Ken who established the “books and records” wing of the Aeroplane, gaining the contacts (it’s where he first met Abbey) and expertise in rare, esoteric and hard-to-find literature that would later carry him into his own independent ventures.
Despite his unconventional bent, Ken, by the way, is as pedigreed as Utahns come, at least those who come from white settlers. Ellen Sanders Kimball, wife of LDS apostle Heber C. Kimball, was one of three women on the first Mormon wagon train that entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.
With his long, flowing chest-length beard, her great-great-grandson looks very much like he could have also been on that first wagon train.
“Mormons haven’t looked like this since the days of Orrin Porter Rockwell,” Ken quips.
In 1980, he started Dream Garden Press Publishing Co., which, much to the delight of poets and literary iconoclasts throughout the Intermountain West, exists to this day, and in 1990, he and his daughter Melissa started Ken Sanders Rare Books, which they headquartered in an old building on South State that belonged to Ken’s father because they couldn’t afford to pay rent anywhere else.
Seven years later, they moved into their current location. On their first day doing retail business, Sept. 1, 1997, their total sales were zero.
“We’ve had bad days since,” he says, “but never zero.”
Quite to the contrary. In the same generation that Steve Jobs reduced all things readable to the size of a smartphone, Ken Sanders Rare Books has expanded and thrived.
“It’s just grown into something,” Ken says. “What that is I can’t tell you, but people tell me it is something.”
Stores like his, he observes, “are becoming our cultural museums, our meeting places.”
For Ken, surrounded by 100,000 books, it’s become home sweet home: “Without books, I’m like a beaver without a tree to gnaw on.”
He’s aware that he might soon have to move. Upscale developments, fueled in part by the success of Ken Sanders Rare Books, are scheduled for his area of downtown, and his landlord has cautioned him that change is in the air.
Ken thinks he might have three years.
And then?
“I’ll just need to borrow more sums of money that I don’t have to buy my own building and ensure that this will never happen again.”
When the time comes, he’s prepared to do just that. Books aren’t dead, and neither is he.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email:

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