Curt Bench, an independent bookstore owner who specialized in collecting and selling rare Latter-day Saint books and who had dealings with Mark Hofmann early in his career, died Wednesday in Salt Lake City. He was 68.
A short statement announcing his death was posted on his bookstore’s website, Benchmarkbooks.com.
“We are sad to announce the sudden and unexpected passing of Curt Bench,” the statement said. “We appreciate all the love and support we have already received at this sad time.”
Bench’s cause of death was a ruptured aortic aneurysm, his family said.
Bench loved books, limericks, Native American jewelry, bolo ties and cuffs, pictures of the sky, and the beauty of nature and the feelings it evoked. He was mindful of birthdays and important family dates and always wanted to share stories of loved ones who had passed away, according to family members.
“He was the bridge-builder,” the Bench family said in a text to the Deseret News. “He saw and believed in the true good of people. He believed the greatest thing we can do is to help one another.”
Bench started his career with Deseret Book in 1984 before launching Benchmark Books in 1987. For the last three and a half decades he kept his business going by taking care of customers, playing detective with rare books, befriending prominent authors and historians and hosting events.
“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,” friend and longtime customer Doug Wright said in a 2018 article. “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.”
Few knew rare Latter-day Saint books like Bench, said author Patrick Mason, the Leonard J. Arrington chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University. Mason was one of many who knew Bench who posted tributes on social media Wednesday.
“He was really part of the rise of Mormon rare books. He knew everybody and kept his finger on the pulse,” Mason said. “I appreciated that Curt was so grounded. He could to talk to the most specialized collector or somebody who walked in and didn’t know anything about Mormon history. He has been in the business so long that he knew everyone and everything.”
Bench was passionate about rare books and documents, but his expertise aside, people may remember him more for how he warmly welcomed every person who walked through his door, said close friend and author and historian Richard E. Turley Jr.
“I think more than anything, he loved everyone and everyone loved him. He accepted people. He was nonjudgmental. He expressed concern for them when they had struggles,” Turley said. “He was an expert in his field, but he was more than that. He was a friend to many, many people. I think that his death comes hard, not just for the loss of his expertise, which is difficult to replace, but especially for his loss of love and friendship, which is irreplaceable.”
Turley said he and many others participated with Bench in an online Zoom meeting Tuesday evening for Utah Westerners, a group of 75 historians that meet each month for dinner and a lecture.
Bench introduced the speaker and was his “usual jovial, funny self.” He was at his store for the Zoom meeting when he began to have chest pains. He was transported to the hospital but died several hours later, according to Ken Cannon, who chairs Utah Westerners’ board.
“This is a huge loss,” Cannon wrote in a letter Wednesday to members of Utah Westerners. “Curt had many friends and bridged many divergent groups. He was a superb bookseller who promoted books and authors and sellers and supplied many of us with lots of good reading. ... Curt was also a superb human being who was fun, interesting, strong and loyal. He was smart in all the important ways. He was courageous. He was a born organizer whose groups made all of us more knowledgeable and smarter.”
Turley said Bench seemed fine when he signed off of the meeting. The two had been planning to make a presentation at a local university, and Bench, a “master of the hilariously low-brow limerick genre,” had just sent Turley three new limericks.
Turley said Bench had a long-standing health issue and nearly died several years ago. He told Turley in recent weeks that his days might be numbered.
“I just didn’t expect it to happen so soon,” Turley said. “So when I got a call from the family this morning it was a shock — complete shock.”
Bench was among several sources interviewed for the true-crime docuseries, “Murder Among the Mormons,” which premiered last March on Netflix. Forger and convicted killer Mark Hofmann deceived Bench and many other booksellers and collectors who had no part in Hofmann’s crimes. Jared Hess, the co-director of “Murder Among the Mormons,” said Bench was the one who initially introduced him to the Hofmann story 15 years ago.
Hess said Bench’s firsthand knowledge and personal insights were “instrumental in helping us tell the story.” He called Bench a “saint.”
“Curt Bench was a dear friend and personal hero of mine,” Hess said in a text message to the Deseret News. “He was the most kind and caring soul you’d ever meet. His contributions to the Mormon history community are unparalleled, but his genuine love and compassion for others will be his legacy.”
Barbara Jones Brown knew Bench through their association in Utah Westerners and the Mormon History Association, where she serves as executive director. Like many others, she appreciated his sense of humor. She rarely spoke to him on the phone “without ending up in stitches laughing with him,” she said.
“He’s been a fixture at MHA. He was always there,” Brown said. “It’s going to be really sad not to see him going forward. He was always giving me and my children books he thought they would like.”
The last book Bench gave Brown was on Japanese American internment policy, her thesis topic.
“He thought I would like it,” she said with emotion in her voice. “I have that book on my nightstand right now. I can’t wait to read it because it was the last book Curt ever gave me.”
Memorials honoring Bench will be held at the East Millcreek Stake Center located at 3103 E. Craig Drive in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 24, from 6-8 p.m., and Wednesday, Aug. 25, from 10:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m., according to his obituary.
A funeral service is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 25, at the same location starting at noon. A broadcast of the funeral can be viewed via webcast. The family encourages those who will attend in person to wear a face mask.