Mountains, redrock and peculiar liquor laws may be the first descriptors outsiders name when they think of Utah.
But the state isn’t just home to an abundance of natural beauty — independent bookstores are thriving and numerous here, too.
“We’re a very good book town,” said Calvin Crosby, co-owner of The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City.
Fantasy and science-fiction lovers can peruse the shelves of The Legendarium. Those hunting for books by weird, wonderful, Western writers can wade through the stacks at Ken Sanders Rare Books or Weller Book Works. And Under the Umbrella not only offers titles by queer authors, but serves as a hangout for the LGBTQ+ community in Salt Lake City. In Spanish Fork, Poppy Books & Gifts is an oasis of new finds for romance fans.
April 29 is Independent Bookstore Day nationally, and many stores across the state will hold special events and readings to mark the occasion. Participating bookstores are inviting readers to pick up a J.R.R. Tolkien-style map and attempt to visit each one in the coming year.
Challenged by big-box chain store competition, 24-hour online ordering service at consumers’ fingertips and fighting for survival through COVID-19, indie bookstore owners have faced their fair share of challenges. However, while running an independent bookstore isn’t likely to make you millions, the business model — from unique neighborhood settings, creating safe spaces to engage with ideas and the possibility of finding a non-algorithmically recommended paperback — has proved durable.
Ahead of the day, The Salt Lake Tribune interviewed five independent bookstore owners about why they decided to go into the business, and what keeps them there.
A community of independent-minded owners
Before moving back to Utah, Crosby worked with booksellers in Northern California. During his tenure as board president of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, Crosby and others voted to launch California’s Independent Bookstore Day. It initially fell each year on Shakespeare’s birthday — which is usually celebrated on April 23.
Independent Bookstore Day now takes place the last Saturday of April and is a nationwide event.
Crosby ran the program for eight years before handing it over to the American Booksellers Association.
“In 10 years, it’s turned into a really great one-day event that a lot of people really look forward to,” the bookstore’s marketing manager Rob Eckman said.
Since moving back to Utah and taking over part ownership in The King’s English, Crosby, Eckman and co-owner Anne Holman have continued the store’s legacy as a community cornerstone and started new traditions.
Part of their mission is strengthening the independent bookseller community. “We actually do find we’re stronger together,” Crosby said.
In May, for example, The King’s English — at 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City — is partnering with The Legendarium and Under the Umbrella Bookstore to host a gala celebrating author Jason June’s new young adult book, “Riley Weaver Needs a Date to the Gaybutante Ball.”
Although some may think that independent bookstores are relics of the past, Crosby says that’s not the case. “We just adjust over and over again with every disruption.”
A hyperlocal ‘hole in the wall’
For Brandon Anderson, the owner of 9th and 9th Book and Music Gallery, running his independent bookstore is a dream come true, but the store came about unexpectedly.
In early 2020, Anderson lost his job of almost 15 years, running local independent record stores in Utah. Anderson said he’s the type of person who can’t just sit still, so “after crying into his Cheerios for a couple of months,” he started building the shop next to The Tower Theater in the 9th and 9th neighborhood. (In February, the store moved up the street, to 962 E. 900 South.)
Anderson was able to tap into areas of passion that define him. He’s been collecting books since he was a kid and combined that passion with his experience of selling new/used records and players. The store also sells used musical instruments.
The shop recently relocated to “a hole in the wall” wedged between a vet clinic, plumbing business and a pottery studio.
Utah’s thriving independent bookstore scene may seem at odds with the state’s tendency to censor and ban books. But Anderson says that notion is exactly what makes independent bookstores so important.
“They can ban books all they want but you can’t really ban them in business,” he said. “That’s one of the really important parts of independent bookstores is access to that material, access to knowledge and dedication to materials.”
At his store, he gets the odd instance of a book turned so the spines aren’t visible, but other than that he hasn’t seen much backlash.
As they settle into the new location, Anderson said he hopes to get art on the walls, and tap into part of the mission he has for his store: to provide arts access and opportunities to the community — with such things as free spoken word and poetry slams, a concert series in the summer and more.
9th and 9th — as a street and this shop — is hyperlocal. It’s true at his store, where Anderson said they exclusively buy, sell and trade from the community.
A penchant for Latter-day Saint history
Over at Benchmark Books (at 3269 S. Main St., South Salt Lake City), Chris Bench spends his Friday mornings buying used books for his store — which specializes in “new, used, out-of-print and rare Mormon and Utah related books,” he said.
His father, Curt Bench, started the store in 1987, after working for Deseret Book for 14 years, where he ran the rare book department. He passed away unexpectedly in 2021, and his son has taken over ever since. Benchmark does monthly author signings and speaking events.
Benchmark Books doesn’t see the same type of censorship issues other independent bookstores in the state might, though Bench said he doesn’t believe in any type of censorship, but it still experiences a different wave of book banning.
“Over the years, there have been different books that have a history of what we call being banned or having changes made to them,” Bench said. He named a biography of Joseph Smith, written by Smith’s mother Lucy and published by Orson Pratt, one of the early apostles of the church, as an example.
“Brigham Young, some years later, tore it apart and said that it was not a trustworthy book,” Bench said. “He did not like it, and actually told people that they should destroy it, that they would come out with a better version — all kinds of things.”
Bench said what makes the store remarkable is that “we’re a place that is open to people all across the spectrum of Mormonism, those that aren’t Mormons, those that are fundamentalist Mormons. This is a place to come to gather information, to gather as people. There’s no judgment on who they are, what they believe.”
For a son, and a community
Tanya Mills had two good reasons to open The Book Bungalow in St. George.
“Because the community needed it,” Mills said, “but also because my son needed a career path and he’s always loved books.”
Mills’ son, Jason, loved books so much that he had his high school senior portrait taken in a library. He wanted to work at the Barnes & Noble in St. George, but the chain didn’t hire him.
So in January 2018, Mills decided to jump in. She signed up for a free workshop on growing your own business offered by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and was able to rent a storefront in downtown St. George. (The store is located at 94 W. Tabernacle St., St. George.)
Besides working at a bookstore one summer during college, Tanya Mills, a published author, had little retail experience. “But then I just kind of got a fire lit under me,” she said.
The Book Bungalow has become a place for the community to gather. Every year, the store throws a “Harry Potter” night with competitions, local magicians and butterbeer. Hundreds of people show up, Mills said.
They have five book clubs with different themes, from murder mystery to self-help. Next up on the “Reading Dangerously” book club’s list is Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.”
And even the pandemic did not throw the Millses off their course. “We expanded when COVID hit,” Tanya Mills said. “We actually did better because people wanted to read more. They got tired of screens, they wanted more physical books.”
Four and a half years in, “we’re almost making a profit,” she said. “It’s not easy to be in the bookselling business.”
And Tanya Mills has seen her son Jason grow with the store.
“When we first started, I had to answer the phone all the time because he didn’t want to even talk on the phone,” she said. “And now he’s the face of the bookstore. He’s at the front counter, and he answers the phone.”
Romance among the books
LeAnn and Ben Jorgensen met working at Cutler’s Cookies in Bountiful. “We always teased that we fell in love over cookies,” LeAnn said.
The couple also shared a mutual love of reading. The Book Garden, which they bought in 2001, is at 2 N. Main St. in Bountiful.
“We lived just a couple blocks away from the bookstore,” LeAnn Jorgensen said. “So maybe that’s why it feels like home.”
The Jorgensens later decided to open another bookstore with “other fun stuff” in Brigham City and called it 3 Goats Gruff. (It’s at 14 N. Main St., Brigham City.)
“As most bookstores do, we just have more books than we have room for,” LeAnn Jorgensen said. The second store provides more room for that larger collection, as well as vintage furniture and vinyl.
Utah’s independent bookstores
Here is a list of some of the Utah bookstores you can visit on Independent Bookstore Day:
Back of Beyond Books, 83 N. Main St., Moab.
Benchmark Books, 3269 S. Main St., South Salt Lake City.
The Book Bungalow, 94 W. Tabernacle St., St. George.
The Book Garden, 2 N. Main St., Bountiful.
The Book Table, 29 Main St., Logan.
Central Book Exchange, 2017 S. 1100 East, Salt Lake City.
The Children’s Hour, 898 S. 900 East, Salt Lake City.
Dolly’s Bookstore, 510 Main St., Park City.
Ken Sanders Rare Books, 268 S. 200 East, Salt Lake City, and 209 E. 500 South (in The Leonardo), Salt Lake City.
The King’s English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City.
The Legendarium, 349 E. 900 South, Salt Lake City.
Main Street Books, 25 N. Main St., Cedar City.
Marissa’s Books & Gifts, 3302 S. 900 East, Millcreek.
9th and 9th Book and Music Gallery, 962 E. 900 South, Salt Lake City.
Pioneer Book, 450 W. Center St., Provo.
Poppy Books and Gifts, 56 W. 200 North, Spanish Fork.
The Printed Garden, 9445 S. Union Square, Sandy.
The Queen Bee, 270 25th St., Ogden.
3 Goats Gruff, 14 N. Main St., Brigham City.
Tschanz Rare Books, 1354 S. 2100 East, Salt Lake City.
Under the Umbrella Bookstore, 511 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City.
Weller Book Works, 607 Trolley Square (700 East and 600 South), Salt Lake City.