Lila Weller dies at 105; only COVID-19 kept her from working at family’s longtime Utah bookstore

She did the bookkeeping, invented a pre-computer inventory system, and was ‘an insightful and discriminating reader.’

(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.

Lila Weller, the lively lover of the written word who kept her family’s Salt Lake City bookstore humming for seven decades, has died.

Weller died in her Salt Lake City home Thursday morning, according to a post on the Weller Book Works’ website. She was 105.

“I love books, and everybody that I meet loves books,” Lila Weller told The Salt Lake Tribune in August 2019. She was 103 then, and still came into the store nearly every day to work in the rare books section with her son, Tony.

Only in February 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic began, did Tony tell Lila she couldn’t come into the store because of the health risk.

“Oh, she’s hating staying home — she’s just bored,” Lila’s daughter-in-law, Catherine Weller, who runs the store with Tony, told The Tribune last July. “Coming to the store was an important part of her day. She loved pitching in, and it helped keep her active. … But we can’t take that risk. She can’t take that risk.”

Lila Nelson — born Oct. 25, 1915 — left a job at the Deseret News to work at Zion Bookstore in 1950, a year after meeting its proprietor, Sam Weller. Sam had taken over the business from his father, Gus, after returning home from service in World War II. (Gus, who founded Zion Bookbtore in 1929, put the store in Sam’s name during the war, because service members’ businesses could not be foreclosed on.)

Lila Nelson married Sam Weller in 1953. The store was renamed Sam Weller’s Books in the 1960s — Lila’s idea — and again in 2012 to Weller Book Works, as Tony and Catherine moved the business from its beloved Main Street location into a former movie theater in Trolley Square. Except for a stretch when she stayed home to care for an ailing Sam (who died in 2009), Lila was a constant at the store.

Lila’s bookkeeping skills helped alleviate the deep debt Sam found the store in after the war.

“Let’s say I was tight,” Lila told The Tribune. “Sam was a people person, instead of a book person. 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.”

Sales representatives were impressed with Lila’s ability to track inventory, Catherine Weller said in 2019. Lila devised her own system, a card file that the store used from the 1950s until around 1990, when the store shifted to a computerized system.

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

Lila, according to the store’s post, “was always ready with vitamin C and Tylenol when an employee felt a cold coming on, and advice when Sam yelled about something. And she grounded Sam when he needed it.”

Lila helped her family’s store survive through a fire in 1972, a downtown beautification effort in 1976 that drove out other businesses, the mall boom of the 1980s, the proliferation of big-box chain bookstores and the growth of the internet behemoth Amazon.

Besides her love of books — “she was an insightful and discriminating reader in her own right,” the store’s post said — she had hidden talents. She was “a secret astrologer,” could read palms, and could, when asked, speak the “carny” language she learned as a young woman.

Though she was sometimes called the world’s oldest working bookseller, Lila didn’t think a lot about living past the century mark. “All I ever did was not die,” she told people, according to the store.

Lila Weller is survived by her son Tony, her daughter-in-law Catherine, and her granddaughter, Lila Ann, a 2019 Westminster College graduate who also works at the store.

A celebration of life will be held, the store said, “when it is safe to gather.”