Opinion: The Case For the Local Bookstore and Ken Sanders

Published on March 21, 2020

The boarded-up local bookstore is all too familiar of a sight, and is becoming increasingly so as brick and mortar shops shutter their doors in the apparent retail apocalypse. The dual forces of the shipping economy and “redevelopment” projects are adding these paperback shelves to the lists of city-living amenities that once were.

Without an increase in public attention, the bookstore may soon join the ranks of the skating-rink, family owned diner, and affordable living space. Instead of a nostalgic longing for the past, however, I would like to take this opportunity to warn of an undesirable future by zooming in on one bookstore important to me. One that shares a similar challenge to used bookstores across the nation.

In a devastating blow to the cultural and political history of Salt Lake City, Ken Sanders Rare Books may cease to exist in the coming year. Ivory Homes, Utah’s largest land developer in terms of revenue and amount of land owned, has plans to redevelop the site in the near future. They decided on the location of Ken’s store as part of the site of this year’s Utah Real Estate Challenge—an intercollegiate contest offering cash prizes to the team of students with the most “economically viable” Real Estate plan.

The Ivory-Boyer Real Estate Center at The University of Utah schedules the winners and likely the future of Ken Sander’s to be announced on April 8th, 2020. Ken Sanders told the Salt Lake Tribune he doesn’t want to lose the store, but there is little choice in the matter. In economic terms “Sanders said he can afford about $1 per square foot, while new construction is usually leased for $25 per square foot,” wrote the Tribune.

Absent an unlikely attitude of kindness over profits from Ivory Homes and/or protective policy from the legislature: luxury rentals, a relocated state liquor store, and a few spendy storefronts as tokens of a “mixed-use” aesthetic and talking point will replace a hold-out for the love of books, democracy, and community.

Ken Sanders’ bookstore is historically and culturally important, and the significance of each should outweigh the private profits of a Real Estate company and the ironic rhetorical gestures to notions of the public good they may use to justify new construction.

Ken and his store are a mainstay of Utah’s cultural history. The great-great grandson of the man who translated the Book of Mormon in Maori. His store contains literature rare and common on the history of the American West and Mormonism. Additionally, his expertise has been displayed as an appraiser on PBS’ Antique Roadshow.

He once told KUTV “you cannot tell the story of the settlement of the entire west without the Mormon people playing a pivotal role in it, and it’s absolutely fascinating history.” One may argue that interested parties can find this history in a museum or online, but not without the critical eye and care of Ken Sanders and the store’s knowledgeable employees. Those who may find benefit to state and settler history being stumbled upon by customers passing through the city should consider preserving this type of urban serendipity. Serendipity that could not be achieved in a formal institution, or any type of newly developed bookstore-that will perhaps look more like a sanitized Apple store, and with a less impressive collection no doubt.

Ken Sanders’ bookstore is also significant to the spirit of democracy in our locale. The broad-side of Ken’s library displays a memorial of Joe Hill, a Utahan who in song and word, and under the threat of force, bravely opposed the wretched working conditions of the early 20th century.
As far as I know Ken’s store is the only, if not among the few local sites where this unique state history can be learned. Perhaps it may encourage others interested in the abolition of poverty and tyranny to be brave as well.

Walking through the store one may also find memorabilia of Edward Abbey who was instrumental in protecting Utah’s wildlands, and who reminds us “wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.” Whether or not one agrees with these works, their availability was critical to democratic dissent in Utah prior to a time of buying books on the internet.

Dissent check abuses of state power and situations where private interest may sacrifice public interest. If business tycoons truly believe in the marketplace of ideas, wherein political thought should be shared, exchanged, compared, and remembered then unique places that foster political hypothesis testing should be prioritized.

What will be erased from the city if its people lose access to Ken Sanders’ store is a unique arrangement of literature. Since 1969 when Ken set up a magazine rack in the old “Cosmic Aeroplane” he has provided the city with texts that were unavailable in other bookstores throughout the valley. Some of them rare and historic, others political.

Developers may argue that there is no cultural or historical loss given the existence of libraries, museums, and the internet, but what Utahans lose is a special arrangement of antiques and popular culture that can’t be found anywhere else in this world. They lose access to expertise and a sense of local community found in walking in to a local bookstore, buying a used book, and conversing with those who sell books out of a labor of love.

Finally, locals of the Salt Lake valley will experience a symbolic, ongoing loss. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities Jane Jacobs warns us of the over financialization of the city. She describes the idea of needing more money as the primary corrective to urban decay and poverty as a “wistful myth.”

Urban blight and poverty are rather a problem of finances to begin with. Competition seeking to make space more desirable via new development “amount[s] to the economic equivalent of a fad” in Jacob’s words. Today we call it gentrification, or creating new markets for neighborhoods that ultimately raise prices and displace the residents who culturally and materially built the desirability of the place to begin with.

This leads to the disenchantment of city life, or an over-rationalization and efficiency calculus that rigidly enforces what space looks like. Scholars understand disenchantment as a logic that uses economic force to determine who and what may belong-until the next fad of course. Against this disenchantment is a sense of wonder, preservation of history, and a condition that encourages diversity of thought and people. Sure, we may all get our books from Amazon, and get them delivered to our newly-built hip and modern apartments, but what we continue to lose is a sense of public wherein you can spontaneously walk into a bookstore, wander, and perhaps find something curious you would have never planned on buying beforehand.

I encourage policy wonks to envision political action that would save bookstores like Ken Sanders’ place, and implore those students involved in the Utah Real Estate Challenge to consider plans that include preserving this treasure of Salt Lake City.

As Abbey said, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

Duncan Stewart is a Contributor at Grit Daily. He is a resident of Salt Lake City and a doctoral student at the University of Utah.

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