Utah bookstore legend Ken Sanders continues to make his lifelong dreams come true

With libraries and schools facing book bans, Sanders aims for a space ‘to be inclusive.’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ken Sanders in the new children's reading room of his bookstore, Ken Sanders Rare Books, at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City. on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022.

After decades in the book business in Utah — first with the counterculture icon Cosmic Aeroplane, and now with his long-standing Ken Sanders Rare Books — Ken Sanders said he’s never before had a dedicated reading space for children in one of his stores.

Until now, that is. As he’s in the long process of moving Ken Sanders Rare Books into new digs in The Leonardo, at 209 E. 500 South in downtown Salt Lake City, the 70-year-old Sanders is set to open a children’s reading room on Saturday, Sept. 24.

“We got a pretty good stock in here,” Sanders said recently, pointing out books he admires in the 300-square-foot reading area as construction was being completed. “We’ve only just begun. We’re going to have books for every age group. The young readers will be down on the lower shelves, since youngsters can’t reach this high.”

Even as Sanders’ team was putting in the finishing touches, the space already felt cozy. It’s housed in the far back corner space Sanders shares with The Leonardo’s gift shop. In his old location on 200 East — which he’s had to vacate for development — he only had one shelf for children’s books, which makes the prospect of the new space even more exciting.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Themed rugs in the new children's reading room at Ken Sanders Rare Books in the Leonardo in Salt Lake City, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022.

The floor is covered in different carpets, cut to fit, that Sanders and his staff found online. They feature different icons of children’s literature: “Harry Potter,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” among them.

On one wall is a map, which Sanders said is his favorite: The land of make-believe. “It’s got every archetype of fairy tale from all around the world, and was done in 1930 originally,” he said.

Sanders said he plans on adding a small table and some chairs, along with pillows kids can curl up and read on, and some book-related trinkets.

The shelves, which will seem towering to children, feature new and used books, with such well-known titles as “Goosebumps,” “A Series of Unfortunate Events” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” There’s a row of “Hardy Boys” mysteries, waiting to be rediscovered by a new generation of young readers.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A shelf of "Hardy Boys" mysteries sits in the new children's reading room at Ken Sanders Rare Books at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022.

The bookcases symbolize some personal history for Sanders. He designed the shelves in the early ‘70s, and had them built for Cosmic Aeroplane. When the store went under, Pat Ortega, owner of The Bookshelf in Ogden, bought the shelves — and 48 years later, Sanders bought them back from Ortega’s family.

Another shelf, shaped like a robot, will feature new releases. An area outside the kids’ space will feature young-adult books.

Sanders held a contest to name the children’s section, and received a couple dozen entries. The winning entry, he said, was from author Terry Tempest Williams: “Where the Wild Things Are,” taken from Maurice Sendak’s classic book. Sanders modified the name slightly, to avoid ripping off Sendak directly, and so the area is called “Where the Wild Things Be.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A space in the basement of The Leonardo in Salt Lake City, where Ken Sanders is planning to showcase his rare books, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022.

Big dreams, big gamble

Sanders has big plans for the space at The Leonardo. As he showed people around the basement, which has lights hanging from the ceiling and boundless empty space, he talked about where he intends to put his rare-book collection, alongside an art gallery and more display cases.

Stopping by his many boxes in storage, he pulled out a book and started reading aloud. His voice changed and adapted to the different characters and experiences on the pages, and he paused to share tidbits about the backstory and other context.

“Do I have a problem with buying books?” Sanders asked with a shrug, indicating the boxes of books around him. “I don’t know. The most I ever bought was 80,000 poetry books.”

Sanders’ latest attempt at re-invention remains a gamble. A GoFundMe launched for the store in 2020 is still going, having raised $167,000 in pledges so far.

“If I were smart, I would just go to some Hobbit hole with my rare books and sell them online for lots of money and forget about the rest,” he said. Indeed, he said he made about $3,000 over Labor Day weekend just from online orders.

“I don’t know where the money is going to come from, but I never have,” he said. It gets a little exhausting, he said, adding that he wishes he had a “cushy savings account” to draw from. “But I spend every cent on buying books,” he said.

Why books get banned

Now that he’s a grandfather, Sanders said he’s learning more outside his own specialty of rare books. (Rare-book collectors, he said, are a “strange breed” of people.)

“What I’ve learned over my 50 years in the business: Every person that comes into your shop — customers, staff — they bring stuff. Sometimes negative, but mostly it’s a positive,” he said.

The new children’s room, Sanders said, is his way to offer something to Utah’s youngest and most vulnerable — the ones who, it could be argued, need it the most right now.

“This is taking back to the kids,” he said. “It starts with the kids.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A shelf of books labeled "Banned in Utah" at Ken Sanders Rare Books at the Leonardo in Salt Lake City, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022.

Sanders decries the increased efforts recently to ban books in schools and libraries. In his old space, he had a display case of banned books, and he’s got another version of that in the new store. And while he doesn’t want his new children’s area to become “a lightning rod,” he said, he hopes it’s a safe place for children to learn and be entertained.

“Any parent, every parent, you have the right to choose what your children read,” Sanders said. “I would never, ever argue against that. But the minute you cross the line into telling what other parents and other children can read, that’s it. It’s game over.”

Many books that get banned, Sanders said, talk about “things that white people don’t want us to talk about.”

He pointed to two books in the biography section of his children’s area: One was of the civil rights icon Rosa Parks, the other was “Hidden Figures,” the story of the African American women who calculated the numbers for the early NASA space missions.

“You can find yourself, whatever you are, reflected in children’s literature today,” Sanders said. “That’s what we’re trying to do with this children’s book room: To be inclusive, not exclusive.”

Ken Sanders Rare Books will have a grand opening for its “Where the Wild Things Be” children’s area, Saturday, Sept. 24, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Sanders will read from Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and Ul De Rico’s “The Rainbow Goblins.” Utah folksinger Kate MacLeod is scheduled to perform. The event is free, and every child and young adult will be able to take home a free book.