Ken Sanders’ Salt Lake City bookstore will likely close next year

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ken Sanders outside his book store in Salt Lake City on January 16, 2020.

Barring a downtown real estate miracle, one of Salt Lake City’s best-known and most colorful bookstores is likely to close sometime next year.

Ken Sanders, proprietor of Ken Sanders Rare Books at 268 S. 200 East, has known since mid-2014 that his shop’s run of more than two decades at that location was nearing an end, as the city center continues to see rampant growth.

But Sanders, now 68 and an icon of hippie counterculture in the Intermountain West, said his ongoing search for a new location hasn’t turned up anything affordable.

“I don’t want to give up the store, but, good lord, what choice do I have?” the bookseller, small-press publisher and literary and musical event organizer asked.

Plans are now moving ahead on redeveloping the half-acre corner at 200 East and Broadway, where Sanders’ store and a handful of other vintage and specialty outlets are doing business. Residential developer Ivory Homes recently submitted the site for this year’s Utah Real Estate Challenge, deploying competing intercollegiate teams of young designers to dream up plans for the corner’s future look and uses.

Sources say a reimagined version of the site could even include a state liquor outlet when it relocates from 205 W. 400 South.

But the design contest doesn’t offer a sure solution for Sanders, whose presence downtown extends back to the 1970s and the city’s first psychedelic shop, Cosmic Aeroplane. He’s skeptical that these designers can create a space that matches his bare-bones budget.

[Read more: Salt Lake City braces for traffic problems as five skyscrapers rise amid a wave of downtown construction]

“I’m not trying to bad-mouth the developers at all. We’ve had a great run here,” Sanders said as he sat beneath life-size drawings by artist R. Crumb of some of the bulldozer-resisting characters in Edward Abbey’s novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang.”

Sanders said he can afford about $1 per square foot, while new construction is usually leased for $25 per square foot. He said this is not the fault of developers. “Nor is it mine. This is economic reality.”

New vs. old downtown

Officials at The Gateway, on downtown’s western edge, offered Sanders space, but the lease was too complicated, he said, and would’ve meant reworking his long-standing business model.

Trolley Square, at 600 South and 700 East, where Sam Weller’s Books relocated in 2012 from Main Street, “isn’t downtown,” Sanders said.

Other locales, he said, are just too expensive. He’s contemplated scaling down the store, dropping its renowned stock of cheap paperbacks or skewing sales toward high-priced books that boost the bottom line — none of which sits well with him.

I’ve never worshipped money,” Sanders said. “All my riches are on the shelves and I don’t have the funding. I most assuredly can’t afford to spend eight to ten thousand dollars a month in rent."

[Listen: Ken Sanders reads “The Visit” by Kenneth Brewer.]

The lack of options highlights a more troubling trend, he said, one that threatens to drain downtown of much of its authentic character.

“Great cities aren’t created by chain restaurants and retailers and cookie-cutter shops and services,” Sanders said. “The unique, indigenous businesses that come out of nowhere are what make great cities interesting in terms of art and culture, and I think bookstores are part of that fabric.”

He took aim at city and state economic-development policies for doling out millions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives to online retail giants such as Amazon and eBay to entice them to locate offices and jobs in Utah.

“Why isn’t there a collateral fund to be split among local homegrown businesses?” the bookseller asked.

“I’m not trying to say I get $5 million, OK?" Sanders continued. "But what about $500,000 or $50,000 or $5,000? And I don’t mean this just for me. I mean this for all local, homegrown businesses.”

A city view

City officials said they have met twice with Sanders and are continuing to work with him and other small-business owners to address some of their challenges.

“Ken Sanders is a gem of our community and establishments like his only add to the culture of our city,” Ben Kolendar, acting director of city’s Department of Economic Development, wrote in an email.

An official with the Downtown Alliance said it is working with Mayor Erin Mendenhall on new strategies for keeping retailers downtown and encouraging others to come in. The difficult situation they face, he said, is real and complex.

Property values are rising, as are costs for construction, labor and managing commercial properties. Small retailers are often squeezed between rising operating costs and downward pressure on their prices from larger competitors and online sales, said the group’s executive director, Dee Brewer.

Ironically, those effects are biting hard just as downtown Salt Lake City is adding new residents and workers, creating more demand for restaurants, shops, grocery stores, dry cleaners and other shops — many of the same businesses facing a financial pinch.

“For a variety of reasons, we should be densifying downtown,” Brewer said. “And a vibrant, walkable, urban neighborhood needs retail shops and eateries for the residents that live and work here.”

Progress and ‘the coyotes’

Ivory Homes is pursuing a mix of housing and commercial spaces in developing the property, which includes Sanders’ shop as well as The Green Ant vintage furniture store and a handful of other outlets facing 300 South.

Enter the Utah Real Estate Challenge, a land development contest for undergraduate and graduate students across Utah, now in its 12th year.

The contest involves a dozen teams of brainstorming young architects, urban planners and business students from the University of Utah, Brigham Young University, Utah State University and elsewhere. They’re competing to create a preliminary vision for how best to develop the site, along with an economic and feasibility study. The top plan wins $20,000.

Ron Green, owner of The Green Ant, said he doesn’t want to move his store, but he sees downtown development coming. Green recently told contest participants he welcomed their approach.

“'You guys are the future,’ I told them,” Green said. " ‘What do you want your downtown to look like? What do you want it to look like for your kids?’ "

The CEO of Ivory Homes said he sought out the contest to get fresh ideas for what will be a prominent new addition to downtown. "We are very mindful and thoughtful of the importance and the value of this location, the retailers, everything,” Clark Ivory said.

Judges will winnow contest entries to three teams in late February, then choose a finalist in April. The winning plans will then be a starting point for work that could begin sometime in late 2021 or early 2022.

“We’re going to get a lot of great ideas from people who aren’t weighed down by years of experience and things that make us less creative,” added Chris Gamvroulas, president of Ivory Development.

Gamvroulas and Ivory said students in the 2020 contest are being given wide scope, including the possibility that Utah officials will relocate the state liquor outlet now at 205 W. 400 South to the Broadway development.

A spokesman for the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control would only say the agency was considering three locations for the 400 South liquor store’s new home.

But for Sanders, it appears a matter of time before the aging 4,000-square-foot building his bookstore occupies will be torn down. There could be 15 to 24 months or more to go, he said, but the outcome seems fixed.

Then, from memory, the bookseller quoted from another Abbey novel, “Fire on the Mountain”:

“Progress. I say, Let’s turn back the clock. Why does progress have to progress over me and the coyotes?”