Booking It In Utah
Margi LaPorte and Karen Lee of the Book Cellar in St. George, Utah.
By Karen Wright
We decided to take our late winter, early spring book buying trip to Utah this year because we wanted to go to Kanab for a few days to volunteer at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. We also wanted to renew our acquaintance with Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, both of which we'd seen in much earlier days. We did all those things, and even found a couple of very cool bookstores.
My husband, our poochie, and I left Virginia City on a cold, windy morning in April and drove east to Ely, Nevada, where books are not only scarce, but funky, to say the least. The highlight in Ely was that we found a gas station where they still wait on you and wash your windows at no extra cost. Also, we did find great French fries at a diner there; not a book in sight.
The following afternoon we arrived in St. George, Utah, after a day of driving across our wind-blown Nevada and Utah deserts. St. George is quite an interesting little town. We discovered great Thai food for dinner and a lunch of excellent cheeseburgers in a restored and reused historic jailhouse. We encountered the first of the beautiful red rock scenery and found Deseret Thrift Store (the Mormon owned chain) where I found a $100 book for $15.00. Deseret seems to have a pretty tight monopoly on thrift stores in Utah. The secret with these places is that they put any real books in a glass case toward the back of the store. You have to have a person with a key to open the case and they stand directly next to you the whole time, watching your hands as if you might put a 10-pound folio in your purse or pocket and walk out with it. Needless to say, the religion section of any book store or thrift shop in Utah is overflowing with fundamentalist Christian tomes.
I just have to relate this story, though it may be somewhat politically incorrect, but it happened at one of the thrift stores. A young employee came out of the back room wheeling a cart of books. I thought as I rubbed my hands together, "Ah hah, no one else has seen these yet!" and asked him if I might look through them. He stopped wheeling and stood there letting me rummage. Just about then, the store manager, who was a scary old gal I dubbed Dragon Lady, zipped up and said that the kid needed to take the books back because they already had too many books on the shelves. This, though about half the shelves were empty. At this point, I had my hands wrapped around two really nice gardening books so I asked her if I might have them. The boy, who was obviously terrified of the Dragon Lady started shaking like a leaf and trying to snatch the books out of my hands. Good book buyer that I am, I calmly hung on for dear life. At that point, the kid looked as though he was either going to cry or hit me. Just in time, the cavalry arrived in the form of an unruffled clerk. He calmed the boy, told me to go ahead and take the two books, and opened the case with the good stuff in it. The kid wheeled the cart back with his tail between his legs and the Dragon Lady went off to yell at someone else. The clerk that had rescued us collared me a few minutes later to apologize for the kluge. He asked where we were from and when I told him, Virginia City, Nevada, he wanted to know if the Cartwrights (of Bonanza TV series fame) still lived there. When I explained that they were not real people, but TV characters he wouldn’t believe me and I think he was kind of mad me after that. We scurried away. Glad I don't work there!
Booking It In Utah
Tony Weller and Karen Wright at Sam Weller's Books in Salt Lake City.
We found that Wal-Mart was even more profuse in Utah than it is in many of the other states. One gal told us that Wal-Mart is the only store within seventy miles on either side of her hometown. Yikkes!
Our first bookstore find in St. George astonished me in that the woman who owned it was avidly listening to Rush Limbaugh's poisonous mouth. Somehow I didn't expect that from a bookseller. The store was pristine, but lacked any personality or soul, and for that matter there weren't any really interesting books; mostly paperback religion and bad craft books. We were to find that true of many of the places we stopped.
It gets better, honest. The second bookstore find in St. George was a delightful little basement bookstore called the Book Cellar, just off the restored area of downtown. Margi LaPorte and Karen Lee, two very nice ladies, started their store about a year ago and are doing okay. They primarily carry a nice general stock of reasonably priced non-fiction with some older, out-of-print fiction, a good shelf of western history, and a number of signed western books, of which I bought two, and the ever present Mormon history and dogma canons. They are happy to give a dealer discount and the store is cozy, friendly and fun to visit. They are very community-minded with book signings and poetry readings.
The next day we left for Kanab and the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. This is the largest, no-kill, animal rescue sanctuary in the U.S. with about 2,000 rescued animals on about 3,000 acres of land ten minutes north of Kanab. We stayed at one of those great old motels, The Quail Park Lodge in Kanab, probably from the 1940s, which was clean and quiet and welcomed our dog. If you are not familiar with Best Friends, and since this is a bookseller article, I encourage you go to www.bestfriends.org if you want more info. It is quite a stupendous place, they do amazing work, and we loved it.
We hit the two thrift stores in Kanab, which were, not surprisingly, very disappointing. There was a huge rummage sale the day we left but I only found one good book. So, off we went up the highway, headed towards Salt Lake City. We stopped at just about every bookstore and thrift shop along the way, with two side trips – one to Bryce Canyon and one to Zion Park - both spectacular and well worth the HIGH price of admission. We won't discuss food again until we get to SLC. Suffice it to say, it wasn't worth talking about except for some okay Cajun cuisine in, of all places, Cedar City.
On the western approach to Zion Park up the highway toward Cedar City, we passed through Virgin, Utah. It is a tiny little blip on the highway surrounded by dusty flatland, and the wind was howling. As we zipped through, we saw the magic sign, "Books." Screech, on came the brakes. It was a fun bookstore, the only one nearby, needless to say, and carried a general inventory. The owner was also the postmistress and the post office was right next door with a doorway between so she could run back and forth. She said that people often came by and just gave her books because they had no place else to take them. She was a two-year novice to bookselling and we had quite a long chat while I perused her inventory. We bought a couple of books and then scuttled on up the road.
If you aren't familiar with Maynard Dixon, he was a wonderful painter of landscapes and life in the American West for more than fifty years. Dixon did a lot of book illustrating, which we did know, but also was a poet, which we did not know. The Thunderbird Foundation for the Arts in Mount Carmel, Utah, is "continuing Maynard Dixon's vision of American Art." Though Dixon's residence was closed for the winter, we visited Susan Bingham at the Bingham Gallery next door (email@example.com) where we saw several of Dixon's excellent western paintings, bought two of Dixon's prints (our anniversary present to ourselves) and found a lovely little print painted by Susan Bingham.
Booking It In Utah
The back room at Sam Weller's Books.
One memorable stop, on a very windy afternoon, was in Orderville, Utah on Rt. 89. The town, which has a population of about 596, was one of the first of the Mormon communal communities. There we found Lance's Book Stop, Antiques and Books. Lance's was rather uh...interesting. He's a transplant from Baltimore, MD. He claims 15,000 books in stock and has a ton of CDs, DVDs, etc. He’s open 15 days each month. We spent about an hour in the little bookstore next to his antique shop. He had a zillion rather general, not particularly noteworthy books. We bought six books, two of which I regretted the next day, but that's the book business. He's a really nice guy and if we had had time to root through his warehouse, we might have found some gems.
We went on up the road a piece, as we say out west, and found a bookstore called Confetti's Antiques and Books in Spanish Forks. They had some great books, again specializing in Mormon stuff, new and used, as they are Mormon-owned. Most of their used books were very pricey and no offering of a dealer discount. They are online, if you want to see what they have.
We finally got to Salt Lake and plopped ourselves down in the Motel 6 downtown. Big mistake. Besides the seedy neighborhood, it is one of those really old Motel 6s that reek of cigarette smoke even though we requested and got a "no smoking" room. Not! However, not to disparage Motel 6s in general, we almost always stay there and have only been disappointed a couple of times (mostly on this trip, actually.) They are affordable on a bookseller's budget, they takes pets without question, and who need fancy digs when you spend all your days in bookstores and thrift shops, anyway?
Other than a number of pretty good thrift stores, we stopped at Central Book Exchange in SLC. The new owners have had it for two years. The stock is general used and a few new tomes of fiction and non-fiction with a pretty decent mystery section. In all the time we've been writing for Americana Exchange, we've walked into stores, been enthusiastically welcomed, and interviewed dozens of booksellers right off the cuff. This time we were surprised. Though the owner, Pam, was pleasant, first she wanted the online address so she could make sure we existed. Okay, fine. She was also, she said, much too busy to talk to us. There were two or three people in the store that she was following around, but I wouldn't say they were really busy. Her partner/husband was rather abrupt, actually, and basically said to make an appointment. We explained that we were only there for one day and could they just give us ten minutes. They didn't seem to want to do that, so I bought two mysteries that I have been trying to find for some time, and we left. They do not offer a dealer discount even though their rather standard, general selection is somewhat pricey.
By this time we were a bit discouraged, but did we give up? No, and we were glad we didn't when we found Sam Weller's Bookstore in Salt Lake. You know how sometimes you walk into a bookstore and it just smells right? It has that perfect cologne of coffee (from the in-store café), paper, leather, and ... well, old books. I'm sure many of you readers are familiar with the store off or on-line. Tony Weller is the grandson of Sam Weller, who was the original owner, and the bookstore, which was originally a furniture store in 1929, morphed out of furniture and into books.
Tony's delightful, friendly wife, Catherine, runs the new book part of the store, Tony runs the out-of-print, used and rare part, so this is still a "family affair." This is probably one of the niftiest bookstores we have run into in all our travels (www.samwellers.com). Tony is not just a bookseller, but a passionate bibliophile and he knows his books. He is also friendly, outgoing, and was eager to talk to us about his store, current politics, and his philosophy of books. Like his grandfather, he probably knows where every book in the store is located and exactly what they have. The Rare Book Room was a treat! I'm a Conan Doyle fan, and he had an entire shelf of rare Conan Doyle and Sherlock books. I had to slap my own hands not to buy anything I wasn't willing to resell. He has a great Western History section where I found several Nevada books for my store. Tony also puts out a bi-monthly newsletter called Booktalk with invaluable info for booksellers and buyers as well as listings of what Author Events he has scheduled.
Booking It In Utah
The Central Book Exchange in Salt Lake City.
I can't emphasize enough what wonderful, eclectic books he has. He has recently acquired a first edition, jacketed copy of Edward Abbey's best known work, The Monkey Wrench Gang. He has a copy of Grammar of the Hawaiian Language by L. Andrews from 1854. He has a two-foot tall copy of a Dick and Jane book, a very good copy of F.V. Hayden's First Annual Report of the United States Entomological Commission for the year 1877 for those of you who love bugs, a fine copy of Stephen King and Barbara Kruger's My Pretty Pony, and one of 30 sets from 1905 with 18 volumes in cherry red leather in elegant condition, Writings and Speeches of Daniel Webster. And, that's just the tip of the iceberg.
His inventory is varied and profuse enough that it would take a real bibliophile a couple of weeks to look at all the wonderful books. He gives a very fair dealer discount and loves to talk about books and the book business. He rued the fact that his business is down 40% from what it was 15 years ago, but feels that there is still a lot of business to be done in rare and antiquarian books, and that there are still lots of people who want to hold a book in their hands instead of reading them off a computer screen. One problem, he noted, was that the downtown of Salt Lake City, like so many downtowns, has been "malled." Indeed, many of the downtown store fronts were empty.
To quote Tony; "Today, Sam Weller's Books still operates from its fourth and hopefully final location at 254 South Main Street. I assumed full management of the business early in 1997, shortly following my parents' retirements. We continue to stock huge quantities of new, used, and rare books and we're constantly looking for ways to increase our selection. In fact, as I say, 'We have more books than sense.'"
Tony's bookstore is staffed by 40 book lovers, 10 of whom each have at least ten years experience in the bookselling business. "We are known for our breadth of inventory, our knowledgeable help, and our dogged efforts to match books with their readers." Absolutely true, as far as we could tell.
We reluctantly went on to another appointment, hoping to get back later in the day, but couldn't make it. I'd love to go there and apprentice with Tony for a few months to hone my appraisal skills.
The next morning we set out for the long trek home, which we did in one very lengthy day of driving. Though we didn't come home with a lot of books, we did find some prizes. We arrived home with about six boxes of books, spent the night in our own comfy house, and then set out the next day for a book sale in Sacramento, where we increased our inventory by another three boxes. We stopped at the Booktown in Grass Valley, a wonderful co-op bookstore ... look online (www.booktownbooks.com), but that's another story. Finally, we made it home to rest, savor, and shelve our new stock. Adieu until the next time from the dusty, windy desert.