When it comes to Mormon books, this dealer is still in rare form
Being close to the center of the Mormon document and rare-book frenzy of the early 1980s was a heady experience for self-described LDS biblioholic Curt Bench.
He was, after all, the kind of guy who always brought a book to the beach while growing up in Los Angeles. The guy who managed a bookstore while still in college. The guy who dragged friends over to marvel at a first edition by some obscure LDS writer.
Mormon history, with its 19th-century roots, was so fresh and so well-documented, it held an endless appeal to the lifelong church member.
Thus, three decades ago, when Mark Hofmann began rolling out little-known Mormon letters, affidavits, printed blessings, contracts and signatures, one after another in rapid succession, no one was more thrilled than Bench.
At the time, Bench had built his rare- and used-book-buying expertise into a profitable niche at LDS Church-owned Deseret Book. He managed a section of these products on the bottom floor of Deseret Book's flagship Salt Lake City store in what was downtown's ZCMI Center mall.
Interest in Mormon history and in Bench's collections had hit an all-time high.
By 1987, two dramatic events had undermined Bench's success: after Hofmann killed two people with pipe bombs, his documents were discovered to be forgeries; and Bench's bookstore employee embezzled $250,000 from his part of the church company.
Though the Mormon bookstore supported Bench, it had to close his rare-book division.
But Bench's passion for historic LDS books could not be squelched. He still got a thrill at seeing an unexpected inscription of a prominent Mormon leader, at finding a gem at a used-book sale or a discovering pristine book jacket on an out-of-print theological treatise.
After his Deseret Book gig collapsed, the LDS dealer took all his source lists and customers and started over with his own store, aptly named Benchmark Books.
Last year, Benchmark celebrated 25 years in the business, but its low-key, affable owner didn't have time to celebrate due open heart surgery in October.
Today, Bench, 60, has not returned to work but is slowly recovering and hopes to be back soon. He misses strolling the aisles of his second-story store at 3269 S. Main and fingering the books like cherished hand-me-downs from a distant past.
Here's a first edition of LDS apostle James E. Talmage's landmark Jesus the Christ, inscribed by the author himself. Here's The Rise and Fall of Nauvoo by another LDS general authority, B.H. Roberts. It's inscribed by the late Mormon prophet, Heber J. Grant, but that early 20th-century leader affixed his signature on oh-so-many books, it's not that rare.
Through the years, Bench has had in his hands some significant items from LDS history, including: a Book of Commandments (one of only 29 known copies); a first edition Book of Mormon that had been given to early convert and future church President Wilford Woodruff by Frank J. Cannon (who became a zealous anti-Mormon); a letter by Brigham Young regarding a meeting with a "gentleman" who turned out to be Sir Richard F. Burton, the famous British explorer who noted the occasion in his memoirs; Young's personal copy (uniquely bound for him) of a rare first edition of the Hawaiian Book of Mormon; and early LDS apostle Orson Pratt's Nauvoo Legion commission, signed by Young.
Bench lands his treasures, many of which are on his extensive hope-to-find list, through word-of-mouth, ads, walk-ins, book scouts, and "pickers."
"We make a fair offer to the seller," he says, "based on what we think we can get for it."
His work has brought him personal satisfaction, if not financial security.
"Economically, it's been a roller coaster," Bench says, "but I love it."
And so do his customers.
"If you are ever looking for a book that no one else has, he has it or can get it," says Salt Lake City attorney Matt Wirthlin, who has bought a boatload of books from Benchmark. "I'm not so interested in the expensive first editions, but in the harder to find, unique items [from Mormon history], like a family history that only had 100 copies."
Ken Sanders, who has his own rare-books business in Salt Lake City, is impressed by Bench's longevity, especially during the past decade's declining book sales.
"Twenty-five years that's a long time in the book trade," Sanders says. "Curt ... knows the books and his clientele. They are bargain lovers, and he has been masterful at finding remainders and other cheap editions as well as high-end rare books."
So, has all this delving into the minutia of Mormonism affected Bench's worldview or his devotion to the Utah-based faith?
"We have a wide spectrum of belief among customers from LDS general authorities to Mormon polygamists," Bench says. "The experience has broadened my faith and helped me develop a more mature faith. It has allowed me to see a larger perspective."
And you can still read his passion like a book as long as it's a rare one.