Ken Sanders tries an online fundraiser to save his bookstore

One of Salt Lake City’s best known antique bookstores is soliciting donations in hopes of surviving a protracted dip in sales due to the pandemic.

Ken Sanders, owner and namesake of downtown’s Ken Sanders Rare Books, said Monday he’s already been overwhelmed by support for the GoFundMe effort, which, three days in, has raised more than $26,000 from 600 donors. His goal is $250,000.

“You know perfectly well many of them can’t afford it, but they care — and I don’t even know them,” the 68-year-old store proprietor, small-press publisher and literary and musical event organizer said of his online patrons, most of whom are giving in small amounts.

“It’s really a humbling experience for me,” he said.

Sanders and his longtime hub of Utah counterculture at 268 S. 200 East have been fending off closure since January, but up until now, the prospect of what the feisty owner called “begging” for money “has been like, ‘No way, over my dead body,’ " he said.

Yet even after landing two government pandemic-relief loans and winning a reprieve from developers who want to raze the building to redevelop its choice downtown location, the bookstore’s finances have continued to sag, with sales persisting at half or less of their usual levels due to coronavirus fears.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 31, 2020.

“We’re working twice as hard to make half the money we did pre-COVID-19,” Sanders said. “And it’s just not sustainable.”

The fundraising tactic is further evidence of the extended financial struggle faced by retailers across the Wasatch Front, even as many of them have moved to reopen.

News of the effort also comes as several of Salt Lake City’s better known establishments have announced they are in trouble — or worse.

Southern Italian icon Cannella’s Restaurant and Lounge across from City Hall and the Middle Eastern eatery Mazza Mediterranean at 9th and 9th have both shut their doors, citing decimated customer demand. Owners of Rico Brand Mexican products announced last week they might have to close, following months of unsuccessfully seeking a new location after owners of their Granary District factory told them they need to move by Aug. 31.

The head of the Salt Lake Chamber’s Downtown Alliance, representing merchants in the urban core, said Monday that foot traffic from office workers, business travelers, conventioneers and arts and entertainment patrons is down nearly 80%, although a majority of downtown bars, restaurants and retailers were open as of last week.

The alliance’s executive director, Dee Brewer, said the recovery of these businesses is contingent “not only on consumers’ confidence in the economy, but on consumers’ confidence in the health of the community.”

Sanders said the GoFundMe donations will be used for payroll and health insurance for his four remaining employees, along with rent, store operations and sanitizing and protection supplies to keep workers and customers safe.

With the cozy, eclectic store and its musty book stacks now limited to by-appointment visits and four in-person shoppers at a time due to social distancing, the shop also needs a major overhaul of its internet retail presence, he said.

“My brain trust tells me that if we don’t sell more online and get more sophisticated, we’re dead,” Sanders said. “And you know, I’m just too doggone stubborn and pig-headed to die.”

He said he hoped the fundraising might bring the store longer-term financial stability. Bridge loans obtained by the store from Salt Lake City and through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, he said, have kept it going since May “and probably we could stumble through the rest of the year somehow.”

But beyond that, he said, the picture gets murky.

“So I’m still uncomfortable with it but I decided to ask for help,” Sanders said. “This isn’t going away any time soon.”

In testimonials on its GoFundMe page, supporters are heralding the store’s role in Utah since the 1960s in championing of the “environment, climate change, social justice, sustainability, radical politics” as well as promoting the voices of minorities, women and members of the LGBTQ+ community with hundreds of free events.

Artist Jann Haworth, best known as a co-creator of The BeatlesSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, described Sanders and his store as a cultural crossroads “where desert rats, intellectuals, misfits, artists, writers, book worms, poets, philosophers come to weave tales with Ken and discover a new author, or a new trail of thinking.”

Added Utah filmmaker Trent Harris: “The universe needs Ken’s bookstore to keep things in balance.”