How does an independent bookstore survive for 90 years? Utah’s Weller Book Works found an answer
As Weller Book Works celebrates its 90th anniversary — a millennia in bookstore years — on Aug. 17, its owners Tony and Catherine Weller look back on their bookstore’s history, how the store is doing now and their plans for the future.
SALT LAKE CITY — It was 1929 and Gus Weller, a recent German immigrant and the owner of the secondhand shop Salt Lake Bedding, Furniture and Radio on 100 South, found himself in possession of a large collection of books.
“As the story goes, one day, he went to buy some old stuff,” said Tony Weller, Gus Weller’s grandson. “And this house he went to had a phenomenal collection of LDS books. My grandfather was a convert to Mormonism, and he was a very, very dedicated man. He bought those books, and … that collection that convinced him turn his little shop into a bookstore.”
It was a decision that would change his life, and in time, shape the lives of his family members for the next 90 years and counting. As Weller Book Works celebrates its 90th anniversary — a millennium in bookstore years — on Aug. 17, its owners Tony and Catherine Weller look back on their bookstore’s history, how the store is doing now and their plans for its future.
The early years of Gus Weller’s shop, then-called Zion’s Bookstore, were tough. He opened in the year of the Wall Street crash, running a small business through the Depression and doing his best earn enough for his and his wife Margaret’s 11 children. As World War II came to a close and his son Sam returned from overseas service, Gus Weller decided that his second son was the help he was looking for, even if initially, Sam Weller had other ideas.
”(Sam) came back from the war and he thought he was going to get into theater. He liked to sing and dance,” his son Tony Weller said. “No one of the family had the money to go to college, but the GI Bill provided my veteran father with the college tuition, but his father had better plans for him than song and dance.”
Sam Weller — who Tony described as “hyperactive (and) charismatic” — was just what the struggling bookstore needed. He expanded the inventory, adding secular fiction and nonfiction books alongside his father’s collection of books about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For his first few years, Sam Weller slept at the store, showering at the local Deseret Gym, all the time working to help his bookshop grow. But for all of his relentless energy, Sam Weller needed organizational help.
Luckily for him, he fell in love with a woman who was an organization pro.
Sam Weller met Lila Nelson at the bookshop through a mutual friend. At the time, Nelson worked as an assistant to then-Deseret News managing editor Theron Liddle, and after Sam and Lila got married, she brought her mathematic, analytical brain to her new husband’s store.
”She really became the kind of organizer in the bookstore,” Tony Weller recalled. “My dad was more that energetic front man. … My mother was quiet, analytical, organized and together.”
Lila Weller, who at 103 still comes into the bookstore on a regular basis, created a system for tracking and cataloguing that became famous among booksellers throughout the West. In those pre-computer days, her system allowed the bookstore to monitor how long new books sat on the shelves and how many copies they sold.
”The brilliance (of her system was) being able to track (the books) in such detail, not just that you sold (a) book,” Catherine Weller said. It’s important for booksellers to know exactly when they ordered a book and exactly when it sold, rather than, as Catherine put it, going “by your memory and saying, ‘Oh, I ordered that sometime this year, so I’ll get a couple more.’”
Sam Weller’s Zion Bookstore
As Zion’s Bookstore grew, so did Sam Weller’s need for more space. The store changed locations a few times through the ‘50s, and in 1961, moved to 254 S. Main, where it would stay for the next 50 years. During those years, the store nearly tripled in size, growing to about 25,000 square feet of retail space, according to wellerworksbooks.com.
Taking up two full floors plus a balcony, the bookstore housed new books on the main floor and used books downstairs, a mysterious and musty maze of bookshelves punctuated by, oddly, mirrored pillars.
”We moved into an area that had once been a dance hall,” Tony Weller said. “Why would we take (the mirrors) down? They were cool.”
These were busy years for Tony Weller’s parents. In addition to running the bookstore, Sam Weller was the president of the American Booksellers Association, and in 1969, on Lila Weller’s suggestion, changed the store’s name to Sam Weller’s Zion Bookstore. But in 1972, the book store caught fire. It was an event that taught Tony Weller two important things about his father.
”One, that he was a mortal,” Tony Weller said. “Until that time, I thought he was the toughest man I’d ever met who could overcome any problem, but that’s the time I saw him cry first. The other thing was that he was nearly a god.”
”He was going into building while it was burning,” Catherine Weller said. “And he did until the fire department told him it was too dangerous.”
”He was an intense dude,” Tony Weller added.
The fire nearly destroyed the business, Tony Weller recalled, but his father pushed to rebuild and in time, got the bookshop back on its feet. One of Sam Weller’s many gifts as a business owner was his involvement and leadership in the local community and reading communities, earning the title “The Mayor of Main Street” and forming, along with Lila and other local bookstores, the Intermountain Booksellers Association.
But the next couple of decades became increasingly difficult for a business on Main Street. As Salt Lake’s downtown district went through various transitions, from the Beautification Program in 1974 that cut parking, to the construction of the ZCMI and Crossroads Plaza Malls down the street, many Main Street businesses struggled to stay alive. Sam Weller’s Zion Bookstore, as one of the largest bookstores in the Western United States, continued to attract readers while many other local business folded or moved, but a new threat — and opportunity — was coming, and it had nothing to with parking spots or shopping centers.
Weller Book Works
Tony Weller grew up helping out around his family’s bookstore, getting to know booksellers, writers, librarians, publishers, editors and, of course, readers. After he graduated from the University of Utah, he realized that there was really only one place he wanted to work.
”When I was a kid, … I was meeting 20-year-olds or 30-year-olds who were some of the brightest people in their generation,” he recalled. “So this kind of got me into the book business, because … I realized that I needed to stay here if I wanted to work with that caliber of people.”
It helped, too, that Tony Weller’s librarian girlfriend — the woman who became his wife — shared his passion for books and book people, and, like her new mother-in-law, was excited to work in her new husband’s family bookstore. ”When I came in to the bookstore, I came in as a bookseller,” Catherine Weller said.
Today, they are co-owners of Weller Book Works. Sam Weller passed away in 2009, although by that time, Tony and Catherine Weller had been running the store since the mid-90s, just as the internet and chain bookstores spelled doom for many indies.
”I think one of the reasons why we’re still here is we kept evolving,” Catherine Weller said. “We grew when it was time to grow, we contracted when it was time to contract, we moved when it was time to move. We keep changing to meet the demands of the modern marketplace — the early adoption of computerization and getting online.”
Staying alive through the early 2000s wasn’t easy — 1,000 U.S. independent bookstores went out of business from 2000 to 2007, according to a Slate.com article — but in 2012, Sam Weller’s Zion Bookstore became Weller Book Works and moved from Main Street to a smaller but airy retail space inside Trolley Square. These days, Tony Weller is a respected rare books expert, and in addition to their well-read booksellers in store, they also sell books online on wellerworksbooks.com, biblio.com, alibris.com and abebooks.com. And, rather than having thousands and thousands of books to browse as in years past, Tony and Catherine Weller have stocked their shelves with a carefully curated collection of books tailored for their shoppers.
”I think … that people can feel overwhelmed,” Tony Weller said. “They actually like a little bit of help. In a store that’s a little smaller, if you gain the reputation of being smart book pickers by virtue of what you haven’t chosen, people say, ‘It’s a good book or they wouldn’t have chosen it.’”
The Wellers aren’t the only indie bookstore owners to realize the power of curated shelves and knowledgable booksellers. NPR reported that between 2009-2015, independent bookstores grew throughout the U.S. by 35%, even in the face of Amazon.com. In part, indie bookstores have stepped in to fill space once occupied by Boarders when they went out of business in 2011, but additionally, according to the NPR report, real estate developers often
see independent bookstores as a mark of authenticity and allow them to occupy retail space at lower rent.
As the Wellers prepare for Weller Book Works’ 90th anniversary party on Saturday, their theme is ”the next 90 years.” Tony and Catherine Weller point out that their daughter, named for her organized grandmother, now works in the store. But as it happened, it was the elder Lila Weller who perhaps summed up the Weller family’s dedication to books best. When asked why she still came in to Weller Book Works at age 103, she answered, “Well, I wouldn’t wouldn’t want to (quit). I mean, if somebody said ‘You can never touch another book in your life,’ that would be terrible.”
If you go …
What: Weller Book Works’ 90th anniversary party
When: Saturday, Aug. 17, 4 p.m.-6 p.m.
Where: 607 Trolley Square
How much: free