When Curt Bench started Benchmark Books 20 years ago, he had already spent 13 years working for Deseret Book. In fact, Deseret Book hired him as a part-time employee while he was attending Brigham Young University, working for a degree in communications.

After graduation Bench managed the stores in Fashion Place and Cottonwood Mall before developing an interest in rare books.

During an interview in his Benchmark office, the reserved, youthful, prematurely gray bookseller recalled suggesting to Deseret Book that they allow him to start buying out-of-print and used books. "Then, in 1984, I moved downtown to manage a store within a store — rare books at Deseret Book."

Over a three-year period, Bench became very knowledgeable about rare books, and he became acquainted with a young document dealer named Mark Hofmann, who was later convicted of forgery and murder and remains today in the Utah State Prison.

When Hofmann's documents — which had been sold to Bench, the LDS Church and others — turned out to be phony, Bench went through the blackest period of his life. To compound it, one of Bench's employees embezzled a quarter-of-a-million dollars. "It was sad because he was a good friend and trusted associate."

It also ruined Bench financially. "After Deseret Book closed the rare-book division, we started over in a teeny store we created on the third floor of the Carpenter Building, up the street from the Rio Grande Depot. Mostly, at first, my family worked for me, and I also worked part-time as a sales representative for Signature Books. Those years were tough, because we were trying to get to the bottom of our losses."

But Bench never considered quitting. "I have loved books since I was a kid, and I can convey that love to people. I didn't have a lot of overhead. But even in the worst years, we always made a profit. Sometimes it was very small — and there were lots of times when I didn't take a check myself."

Today, Benchmark Books is located near the corner of 3300 South and Main Street, a bit far from downtown but accessible to the freeway. Although Bench occupies the second floor, the building prominently bears his company name.

Eventually, he would like a bigger building. He employs eight to nine people, including his son, Chris, who will eventually take over the business.

Chris handles all the buying of used books, and his father plays detective with rare books and making transactions in many states and several foreign countries. Rare books represent about 60 percent of the business — one that focuses unashamedly on LDS-related books and periodicals.

"We have an active customer base of several thousand people," Curt Bench said. "Some are readers and others are collectors. Some customers just want one book. Some are strictly collectors who want trophy books. We have a core of loyal people across the Mormon spectrum who come in regularly."

A great many fundamentalists frequent the store — chiefly to buy scriptures and hymn books. Bench often holds book signings so customers can meet important authors of LDS books, such as the most recent, which was for Robert Millet, a BYU religion professor who has written more than 50 books.

Benchmark also cultivates a friendly business where people talk to each other, and Bench is often found talking books to customers. "I don't want to lose that personal touch. One guy who comes in regularly says this is his 'ward' and I'm his 'bishop,"' Bench said with a chuckle.

Walking through the store and the hallway gives a visitor the impression of being surrounded by books. There are boxes of books piled nearly everywhere and over a large portion of Bench's office. It creates an ambience for learning. At home, the Benches face a similar clutter of books. His wife recently said to him, "Could we please have just one room in the house that has no books?"

Bench puts in 40 to 50 hours a week. "My escape is a regular Friday lunch with a group of friends. We talk about history, books, movies and church stuff. But more than anything, I like to talk with people about books."

He also dabbles in fine-press leather books issued in limited editions — such as Ed Kimball's book, first published a couple of years ago, about his father, Spencer W. Kimball, and the latter's administration as LDS Church president. Bench will put a lot of material that could not be included in the Deseret Book publication and plans to print 200 to 300 copies. "A lot of my customers love that sort of thing."

Bench has a "personal passion" for early Mormon books and dust jackets, "because traditionally, jackets are either ruined or tossed — so they are quite rare. BYU once did an exhibition of about 50 of my jackets. It can be said that 80-90 percent of the value of a book is in the jacket."

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com