At the desk in the corner, he inspects an 1874 edition of “Wonder-Land Illustrated,” the second book written about Yellowstone National Park. He sits among piles of books, from collectors’ items to Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” Through thick black spectacles, he turns it in his aging hands, opens its covers, and settles on a price.
At 68, with a flowing white beard and wrinkles beneath his eyes, Ken Sanders has been doing this for 50 years. He’s run this bookstore for 24 years, 4,000 square feet of musty pages and chaos. But surveying the void caused by the coronavirus pandemic, he’s unsure how much longer he can hold on.
Ken spent his childhood with his nose buried in his paper educators. “I rarely turned in assignments or did homework,” he remembers of high school. He had no interest in college. Why “would I volunteer for another four-year stint in prison?”
Instead he entered the rare books trade. His first store was part of Cosmic Aeroplane, once a counterculture hub in Salt Lake City. Now he’s in a small white building covered with murals and outdoor shelves stocked with free books. And since 2007, he’s appraised books for PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow.”
None of that is enough to beat the internet — “Damazon,” as Ken calls Jeff Bezos’ retail behemoth — and real estate development and a devastated economy.
He was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a small book fair in March when it hit. He checked into the Marriott, unloaded his cargo, and met a colleague for dinner. His phone wouldn’t stop buzzing, so for once, he checked it. The event had been canceled. “That’s when the whole corona wall just fell down on me,” he says. “I drove 1,200 miles to not sell a single book.”
Back in Utah, he closed the store and turned to the braintrust — a small group of friends — to concoct new ways to keep customers. Curbside pickup; hammering mail orders; free shipping; free delivery in the Salt Lake Valley; $100 gift cards that could buy $125 of merchandise; browsing by appointment. But in April and May, his profits fell by half.
He took out loans from the city and the Paycheck Protection Program, and he’s managed to retain his handful of employees. Now the loans are gone. “I’m outta options,” he says. “There’s nobody offering me any more money.” So he’s met with the braintrust on Zoom, trying to rebrand and figure out what’s next. But whatever the group comes up with, there’s no going back to “normal,” whatever that means.
“That word should just be erased from the dictionary,” Ken says. “There wasn’t any normal. We’re not going back to any normal. Normal does not exist.”
For years, development has encroached on his downtown Salt Lake location. In every direction, old buildings like this have been torn down, stucco apartments rising in their stead. He knows the bulldozers will come for him, but the COVID crisis, he says, has likely “postponed the immediate destruction of the business.”
It’s cold comfort. “What I’m doing here,” Ken says, “it’s not sustainable anymore.” With so much talk about “essential businesses,” Ken has always assumed books to be essential. “They’re like food,” he says. “I devour them, like a beaver with its trees.”
He’s not alone, though business is slow on this June afternoon. One customer calls out from the register. “I found some treasures, Ken,” he says. “Excellent,” Ken answers, smiling, his plague doctor-like mask temporarily stacked on one of the book towers crowding his desk.
Acoustic music fills the space, like the soundtrack to a lonely Saturday night. Over Ken’s shoulder hangs an oil portrait — of Ken. Standing in front of a bookcase, one arm propped up on a shelf, the illustrated Ken stares downward, off to the side, lost in contemplation.