Weller Book Works turns 90, after surviving the Depression, fire, the internet and changing tastes

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tony Weller assists his mother Lila as she logs books into a computer at Weller Book Works, August 7, 2019. Weller Book Works — formerly Zion Bookstore and Sam Weller's Books — is celebrating its 90th year.

It was in 1949, when Salt Lake City’s Zion Bookstore was 20 years old, that Lila Nelson first met its proprietor, Sam Weller.

Lila was attracted to the store, and to Sam, who had taken over the business from his father, Gus, just after returning home from service in World War II. A year after they met, Lila left her job at the Deseret News to work as the bookkeeper at Zion Bookstore. Three years after that, Lila and Sam were married.

And, apart from a period in the 1990s and ’00s when Lila stayed home to care for an ailing Sam (who died in 2009), Lila has remained part of the fabric of the store — renamed Sam Weller’s Books in the late ’60s (at Lila’s suggestion), and in 2012 to Weller Book Works.

“I love books, and everybody that I meet loves books,” said Lila Weller, who at 103 still works at the store that her son, Tony, and his wife, Catherine, own and operate.

The bookstore will throw a 90th birthday party from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at Trolley Square, at 600 South and 600 East, the store’s home since 2012. Three generations of Wellers — Lila, Tony and Catherine, and their daughter, Lila Ann, 22 — are expected to greet guests and celebrate the enduring appeal of the printed word.

If not for Lila, though, the store may not have made it past the 1950s.

Sam’s father, Gus, opened Zion Bookstore as a secondhand shop in 1929, just before the Great Depression hit. In the late 1930s, Gus bought farmland near Marion, Utah, and moved there, leaving his sons Sam and John to run the bookstore. During the war, after Sam was drafted, his sister Rachel ran the store. According to family legend, Gus “gifted” the store to Sam, because businesses owned by servicemen couldn’t be foreclosed on during wartime.

When Sam returned from the war, and Gus pressed him into taking over the store, Sam found the business deep in debt. Sam worked years to pay it off, and Lila’s bookkeeping skills helped. “Let’s say I was tight,” she said with a laugh.

“Sam was a people person, instead of a book person,” Lila Weller said. “Sam loved people, and if he didn’t know anything about you, he would corner you and talk to you for an hour to find out. Then, when you came in, you were an old friend, and he’d usher you right to the books he liked.”

Sam’s approach also applied to sales representatives, some of whom became family friends who would occasionally stay overnight at the Weller home during business trips, Tony said.

The sales reps were particularly impressed, Catherine said, with Lila’s ability to track inventory. Lila devised her own system, a card file used in the store from the ’50s to when the store switched to a computerized system around 1990.

“If a person called and said, ‘Do you have this book?’ It’s easier to look in the file than run out to the shelf and hunt for it,” Lila said.

Each book was given a little slip of paper, which clerks used to track inventory. Tony said that he recently bought back a secondhand book that still had one of those slips, from when someone bought the book from Weller’s back in 1976.

Weller Book Works turns 90

The venerable Salt Lake City bookstore throws a birthday party, with cake, music and guest speakers Rocky Anderson, Terry Tempest Williams and Brooke Williams.

Where • Weller Book Works, in the southwest corner of Trolley Square, 600 East and 600 South

When • Saturday, Aug. 17, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Admission • Free

Souvenir • A commemorative 90th anniversary tote bag, with artwork by Salt Lake Tribune editorial cartoonist Pat Bagley, will be sold at the event.

The system wasn’t foolproof. Once, Lila recalled, a 3-year-old girl became “entranced by those yellow slips. By the time we caught her, she had a whole handful.”

In the 1970s, Sam Weller’s Bookstore weathered its share of setbacks. A fire destroyed much of the store’s old building in 1972, but Sam had a “fire sale” going in a temporary storefront within days. In the later ‘70s, attempts to “beautify” Salt Lake City’s Main Street reduced foot traffic around the store. So did the dueling shopping malls, the ZCMI Center and the Crossroads Plaza, a couple of blocks north (where the City Creek Center now sits).

More recently, Catherine said, independent bookstores across the nation dealt with “a period of great contraction” — first with the proliferation of big-box chain stores, then with the disruption from internet retailers, notably Amazon.

“Through that, independent bookstores have been able to hang on, I believe, because our communities value us and because we are able to respond to to market forces,” Catherine said. “Wellers is certainly more nimble than it used to be, in terms of adapting to change.”

Wellers Book Works took to the internet sooner than many independent booksellers, she said. “It also helps that we have a broad range of books — new, used and rare — on many subjects, so that we can sell to all kinds of different people.”

Another drawback to the internet, Tony said, is that some customers don’t trust his decades of expertise on the book world.

“Sometimes they stand right here in this bookstore and show me a book, and I say, ‘Yeah, that’s the first printing.’ And they say, ‘How do you know? Do you have some authority you turn to?’ And I say, with humility, ‘In our community, I’m called that guy,’” Tony said. “They feel nervous if I don’t touch the computer. Somehow the computer lends authority to every statement.”

“What happens in those transactions is the conversation,” Catherine added. “That allows people to understand the vast amount of experience and expertise that is housed in this store. … The experience of conversation, the interaction in a bookstore, is a rare and wonderful creature in some ways. It can’t be replicated online.”

Sam Weller’s has even fostered romance. According to Catherine, Utah author Terry Tempest Williams met her future husband, author and wilderness advocate Brooke Williams, in the basement of Weller’s sprawling Main Street location. (The Williamses are among the guest speakers expected at Saturday’s birthday party.) In 2001, “Evil Dead” actor Bruce Campbell, during a book signing for his memoir, helped orchestrate a fan’s marriage proposal to his girlfriend.

Maintaining a successful bookstore for decades, Tony said, is a matter of tracking changing tastes.

“Sam said, ‘Never let Vardis Fisher go by,’ and I said, ‘OK, I won’t,’” Tony said, referring to the Idaho-based author of Old West historical novels, who died in 1968. Fisher’s works sold well through the ’80s and ’90s, “and then, all of a sudden, one day there were no more Vardis Fisher fans. They all died. But I have to remind people that Jane Austen fans died for a few generations, and came back.”

The future of Wellers Book Works will rest with the fourth generation of the Weller family: Lila Ann, who started working full time at the store when she was 17.

Books, Lila Ann said, are “a realm where I just get to explore the ones I haven’t discovered before. Ideas are stirred in a way that I don’t really think they are in many other environments.”

Lila Ann graduated from Westminster College earlier this year with a bachelor’s degree in public health. Her goal is to become a doula, aiding women giving birth. “It’s something that I can do on the sidelines. … I see doula work and book work going very well together,” she said, noting that she will take over the family business when the time comes.

Part of Lila Ann’s mission is to expand the store’s cultural breadth. “In the past, we have been known for our LDS presence, and that’s something I would like to continue because of the historical aspect,” she said. “But we’ve really been pushing to create a space for folks who aren’t necessarily conservative persons in Utah … where they can think and explore freely without having to defend their identities.”

Talking about the store that is her birthright, Lila Ann shows the same tenacity and love of books her grandmother has, as Lila works in the back room cataloguing books.

Catherine Weller puts it best: “There are times when I think she’s going to outlive us all.”