SALT LAKE CITY — When news broke last September that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had acquired the Printer's Manuscript of the Book of Mormon from the Community of Christ for $35 million, KSL Newsradio's Doug Wright made his first call for an expert opinion to the owner of a local independent book store.
Nobody would know better than Curt Bench, the longtime owner of Benchmark Books, Wright said.
"He's had so many things that have gone through his shop over the years. ... I called and tapped into his expertise," Wright said. "He can give not only background, but provenance — where it came from, what its legacy is, what its history was, the significance of it. Curt, at his fingertips, has incredible expertise."
For more than 30 years, Bench, a modest man with healthy white hair, has been operating Benchmark Books, an unconventional, windowless bookstore on the second floor of a brick office building near the corner of 3300 South and Main Street, where he specializes in new, used, rare and out-of-print LDS books and other historic Mormon items. His three-decade run is an impressive feat when you consider the online competition, said Wright, a longtime friend of Bench.
"For an independent bookseller, think of the times he’s gone through and the transitions we’ve seen ... the number of places you can buy books now with the online presence," Wright said. "I think it’s been the expertise, the knowledge and the eclectic nature of his store. It’s not a traditional bookstore by any means."
Over the years, Bench has developed a loyal clientele by tracking down items his customers want and hosting events that bring in prominent authors and historians for book signings.
"What else can I tell you?" said Bench, a self-described bibliophile, during an interview in his office, encircled on all sides by bookshelves. "It's been the love of my life."
'We are very persistent'
Benchmark Books opened in 1987 in a small space on the third floor of the Carpenter Building near the Rio Grande Depot and Pioneer Park before moving to a location on 3300 South in 1994.
According to Bench, part of the Benchmark brand is never waving the white flag on a customer's request. One request — the current record — goes back to around the time he opened the business 30 years ago.
"We filled a request for a rare printing of 'O My Father,' by Eliza R. Snow, published circa 1910. Most don't take that long to find, but we are very persistent," Bench said. "We will search for any LDS book ever published. We pride ourselves in not giving up."
The "holy grail of rare Mormon books," Bench said, is the 1833 Book of Commandments, of which there are only 29 known copies. Bench once owned one, sold it for profit and was later involved in other transactions of the same copy.
Bench has bought and sold several first-edition copies of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price.
He's held documents signed with names like Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff; a rare first edition copy of the Hawaiian Book of Mormon; a ZCMI stock certificate signed by every church president from Brigham Young to David O. McKay; and a signed first edition of LDS apostle James E. Talmage's "Jesus the Christ," among other treasures in his store.
Walking among the endless shelves of books, customers will see glass cases full of volumes autographed by LDS Church leaders, authors and historians.
Currently, Bench said his most valuable item is a large collection of letters written by George Q. Cannon to one of his plural wives. He also has a large collection of early Mormon books and dust jackets that he hopes to sell one day.
"Someone once joked, 'The problem with rare books is they are getting scarce,'" said Bench, who does some collecting but tries not to become too attached to items in his inventory. "Over decades, I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of dealing with some fun things."
Wright has been a loyal customer of Benchmark Books over the years.
"You see what he has and think, 'Are you kidding me? Where did you get that?'" Wright said. "You open a book and look at a signature or writing acknowledging the gift of this book to Brigham Young. He'll produce an obscure piece of paper where you have Joseph Smith’s signature, Emma Smith’s signature, Hyrum Smith’s signature. It’s amazing what flows through Benchmark Books."
Over the years, Bench has helped historians with the Church History Department and research institutions like Harvard and Yale find out-of-print books and other rare Mormon items. The trick is finding something they don't already have, Bench said.
Benchmark also deals a little in Utah history and Western Americana, Bench said.
"It's a challenging business, especially in today's environment with websites like Amazon. There are less readers and collectors," Bench said. "But we are specialists. That's what we are known for and that's our strength."
Bench's passion for books is why he's still in business, Wright said.
"I think it's people relying on his expertise, relying on his integrity, which is in no small part so important," Wright said. "Here is a guy that really cares and sometimes is probably honest to the point of even detriment of a particular deal or sale. He values the integrity of clientele, of his authors and his store."
A friend of authors
In her first experience with Benchmark Books, Kate Holbrook, an author and specialist in women's history in the LDS Church's Church History Department, found a book that proved essential in teaching a class on women and religion. Her students loved the book, Holbrook said.
Since then, Holbrook and other LDS Church historians and authors have accepted invitations to speak, answer questions and sign books at Benchmark Books. Holbrook has gone there in recent years to promote "The First Fifty Years of the Relief Society" and "At the Pulpit."
"There is a sense of family there that makes the store a wonderful place to spend your time. And the role they play in the Mormon Studies world is crucial — facilitating the production and intellectual consumption of books that help us to understand LDS culture, history and theology," Holbrook wrote in an email to the Deseret News. "Benchmark has played an important role in our scholarship and our quality of life."
Benchmark Books has forged friendships with prominent authors, historians and other notable names in the book publishing business through book signings and promotional events. The long list of authors and historians include Bushman, Terryl and Fiona Givens, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Gregory Prince, Royal Skousen, Richard E. Turley Jr. and Reid L. Neilson, among others.
Bench met Bushman more than a dozen years ago after the publication of "Rough Stone Rolling," a biography of Joseph Smith, when Bench was seeking autographs for signed book copies. Since then, the two have enjoyed a "pleasant friendship." Bench is a friend of authors, always generous and good-spirited, Bushman said.
"He’s become a significant institution in Mormon book culture," Bushman said. "He doesn’t just put his books out and sell them; he really turns it into a little society of collectors, readers and authors and brings them together to talk to each other. It leads to friendships and connections that might not otherwise occur. He usually gets a good crowd and always has some refreshments."
Book sales aside, Neilson, assistant church historian and recorder and the managing director of the Church History Department, feels the community has benefited from activities at Benchmark Books.
“Curt Bench and the Benchmark team have created an oasis of intellectual activity and a gathering place for thoughtful Latter-day Saints and others to discuss important issues and the most recent publications in Mormon history," Neilson wrote in an email. "He is to be thanked for his impulse to bring a variety of voices together to better understand our LDS past. Curt is a Latter-day Saint in the best sense of that title.”
Eric Smith, editorial manager in the Publications Division of the Church History Department, was surprised last fall to find at least 50 people packed into the bookstore when promoting "The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal about Mormon History." He was impressed by their questions and interest in the topic. He also appreciated Bench's invitation to eat at Crown Burgers after the event.
"As an author, it felt very good to meet people who were so enthusiastic about the book and so well-informed about Latter-day Saint history generally," Smith said. "When I left, I felt like I had made several new friends, both among Curt’s staff and among the audience who had come for the book signing."
"You walk through those doors and you never know who is going to be in there. You’ll see authors, notable people within the community, in church, business and in collecting. It's a gathering place for bibliophiles," Wright said. "It’s quite an occasion. It's fun to look around the room and see who else is there with you. Plus, his wife’s treats afterwards are dynamite."
Bench hopes to keep his business going for a long time to come — if not for the next 30 years, at least the next three.
"I just renewed my building lease for another three years," Bench said. "We are going to be here for who knows how long."
For more information on Benchmark Books, visit benchmarkbooks.com.