Somewhere nestled in the downtown area of Salt Lake City, perched shy off of 300 South, lies an internal fantasy world born from the mind of book collector Ken Sanders. Rows of shelves stacked with over 100,000 books line the inside of the cream brick edifice, the building itself decorated in flags, murals by artists Trent Call and Josh and Heidie Bell and activist posters by groups such as the Local Propagandists. Right off the bat, one myth is debunked — appearances are not deceiving, and Ken Sanders Rare Books is a place welcome for all.
“Books find me. They lay in wait and pounce on my desires,” said Sanders, whose fascination with literature has been blossoming from a young age. “I have always been a bookseller,” he said. After selling comic books in grade school, fourteen-year-old Sanders worked at Central Book Exchange in Sugar House before working at the Hollywood’s Collectors Book Shop and with Salt Lake’s own Sam Wellers of Weller Book Works. “I created Cosmic Aeroplane Books out of Steve Jones’s old hippy head shop in 1975, founded my own publishing company, Dream Garden Press, in 1980, and have been running Ken Sanders Rare Books in Downtown Salt Lake City for the past 25 years,” Sanders said.
Indisputably integral to the Salt Lake scene, Sanders is foundational within the city’s counter-cultural canon. Sanders is a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, where he served as Security Chair and has also had his hand in real detective work, orchestrating a sting operation that caught serial book thief John Charles Gilkey in 2003. Needless to say, with Sanders there is never a dull moment.
Ken Sanders Rare Books is no ordinary bookstore. Offering a wide selection of used and rare books beyond a handful of new names, Ken’s offers “an ever-changing selection of art, ephemera, maps, photographs and postcards,” on top of book appraisal services. Readers can search the store’s inventory online or meander among the many serpentine shelves of uncatalogued copies in person, all organized by respective theme. The store, originally an automotive tire shop from the 1920s, has become a sort of Salt Lake City archive, a rare diamond of second-hand materials specializing in western history. “Every book ever published had a first edition,” Sanders said. “Passion, knowledge and learning is what it is all about.”
There is an unspoken beauty surrounding used objects. Avid thrifters and second-hand shoppers know the adrenaline rush of a new find and the internal comfort of owning something preloved — it’s the sensation of being a part of a story much greater than one individual. Used books have the rare ability to partake in these second-hand shared stories with actual stories themselves. “It’s the preservation of the words that’s important, it’s reading them and being their caretaker, that’s what matters,” Sanders said. Words outlast broken hearts, global pandemics and people alike. Words are eternal.
Rescue Mission: Supporting Local Business
Unlike words, locations are unfortunately not everlasting. “The bulldozers are getting closer and closer to our home of the past 25 years,” Sanders told KSL. Thus, Ken Sanders Rare Books is making a permanent move to The Leonardo, Salt Lake City’s technology and science museum. The separation from the store’s original location is bittersweet, yet the museum will provide ample space for creative freedom in an environment cultivated for learning and exploration.
“Our forthcoming move into The Leonardo will require a ghastly amount of money for building it out and fixturing stores on two different floors,” Sanders said.
This struggle comes after the harsh effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on small businesses, Ken Sanders Rare Books included. “Survival is the answer,” Sanders said. “Donors have allowed us to stay in business during some perilous times.” Not only has the bookshop kept its full staff throughout the pandemic, but it also provides its full-time employees with 100% healthcare coverage. The true rarity is beyond books here — it’s Sanders himself.
Even with the location shift, a mural plastered on the exterior of the original store rings true as an everlasting mantra: “Come in and remember what a book smells like.” In response to the bookstore setting up a GoFundMe to aid during these formidable times, Sanders said, “I have been overwhelmed and humbled by the over three thousand of you that have contributed over $165,000 of our $250,000 goal. Thank you.” Supporting local businesses is pivotal for preserving the integrity of Salt Lake City’s charm. “Spread the word about our shop. Go online, curbside or in person and buy a book,” Sanders said.
When asked what being a small business owner means to him, Sanders said, “It’s the only world I ever wish to know.”