After nearly two years of looking, while battling to keep his business afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic, Salt Lake City bookseller and counter-culture icon Ken Sanders has found a new home for his namesake store: The Leonardo.
Sometime in 2022, Ken Sanders Rare Books will open up shop in The Leonardo, the science-and-technology museum on Library Square, Sanders told The Salt Lake Tribune.
The Salt Lake City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a resolution that would allow The Leonardo — which rents the former Salt Lake City Library building at 205 E. 500 South from the city — to sublet space to private businesses. The resolution requires those businesses to “fulfill a public purpose” and have “a direct connection to The Leonardo’s mission and programming plan,” according to a council analysis.
For Sanders, it’s a chance to restart the business he began in 1997 at 268 S. 200 East, a couple of blocks north of Library Square.
“My daughter says, ‘Dad, at your age, are you just effin’ crazy?’” Sanders said recently, as he gave a tour of the space he plans to take over at The Leo. Sanders turned 70 on Dec. 4.
“I want to do it because it’s my last chance to reinvent myself,” Sanders said. “I didn’t think I had it in me, and maybe it will kill me.”
Sanders sees a chance to lure The Leo’s patrons to his store.
“Pre-COVID, The Leo had 170,000 visitors a year,” Sanders said. “They will all be, in essence, walking right past my bookstore.”
The Leonardo also sees a benefit in the partnership. Opening the museum’s space to Sanders’ store is a way to “go back to our roots,” said Lisa Davis, a member of the museum’s governing board, referencing The Leonardo’s mission when it was created 10 years ago.
Davis said the mandate when The Leonardo began — in the space occupied by the Salt Lake City Library’s main branch from 1964 to 2003, before it moved into its current location across Library Square — was “to make Library Square a very active, dynamic, community-oriented space.”
Another connection that a Tribune photographer spotted: With his shaggy beard and halo of white hair circling his bald crown, Sanders somewhat resembles the museum’s namesake, the Renaissance artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci.
In February, as the museum was starting to reopen, Sanders created a pop-up version of his bookstore, Davis said. The mini-store featured a collection of books about the civil rights movement, coinciding with the museum’s exhibit “Sorting Out Race.” And Sanders has organized a monthly book club at the museum.
That pop-up area, Sanders said, will become his store’s permanent space for new books, blending in with the museum’s cafe and gift shop. The space will be a good location for signings and readings, as well as the occasional book launch party. (Sanders said The Leonardo’s best-kept secret, until now, is that it holds a state liquor license — something he hopes to take advantage of from time to time.)
Part of the ground floor space will be a children’s book section, something Sanders, who is a grandfather of two small children, said he has always wanted to create. Sanders said he’s looking forward to leading story-time readings for children. “I’m even planning a secret entrance,” he said.
Sanders will put his store’s used-book section in the basement, deploying funky shelving he has amassed from other bookstores over the years.
It will take a good deal of work, clearing out the exhibit items that The Leonardo has accumulated over the years. Among the oddities in storage include a carnival-cutout version of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream,” kiosks extolling University of Utah geneticist and Nobel laureate Mario Capecchi, and a bust of the late U.S. Sen. Jake Garn (from when the museum displayed the flight suit Garn wore on his 1985 flight aboard the space shuttle Discovery).
The jewel in Sanders’ store plans, he said, will be the space for his rare-book business, in a space in the sub-basement that The Leonardo calls “The Kiva.” It’s an old reading room from the building’s days as the library, and it’s currently inaccessible.
“It’s going to be the coolest rare-book room in the universe, when I get done,” Sanders said.
The rare-book trade has been Sanders’ bread and butter since he opened his store in 1997, and particularly during the pandemic.
“What has always kept me alive is selling high-end books to high-end clients and institutions,” Sanders said. Most of those sales are in the four- and five-figure range, though once in a while, he said, “I sell a Book of Mormon for a hundred grand, but I might make five grand on it [in commission].”
‘I’m not ready to quit’
Sanders learned in 2014 that the real estate development company Ivory Homes had bought up his store’s half-acre space, along with the business on the nearby corner. Since then, he’s been expecting a notice that he would need to vacate.
A building to the north of the bookstore, which once held a beauty salon, was razed last year to make room for another high-rise in downtown Salt Lake City’s building boom. Earlier this year, Sanders’ neighbors across 200 East — a block of retail space that once housed the Tavernacle Social Club and other businesses — was torn down.
Sanders sounded the alarm in January 2020 that he couldn’t find an affordable location to move his 4,000-square-foot store. Years ago, Sanders said, every major city had a low-rent district where sprawling bookstores like his could afford to open space for many shelves of books. Now, he said, “there’s no low-rent districts in any downtown any more. They don’t exist.”
Catherine Weller, who co-owns Weller Book Works with her husband, Tony, said that “what’s affecting Ken is what affected us, and that is the changing face of downtown.”
Weller noted that “in a lot of core downtowns, the place for a large old-line bookstore … is evaporating. The size of building, the footprint that people need to run businesses like that is going away.”
The Wellers moved their store, founded by Tony’s grandfather Gus in 1929, from its Main Street location — known for decades as Sam Weller’s Books, named for Tony’s father — to Trolley Square in 2012. Businesses on that Main Street block were forced to move or close in 2019, but development plans for the building were put on hold during the pandemic.
The pandemic, it turned out, provided Sanders a temporary reprieve from his moving woes. The landlord offered a delay of up to six months on rent, and vowed to help Sanders apply for federal stimulus money. In the end, Sanders said, his business received $45,000 in a forgivable loan from the feds, and a $20,000 loan from the city.
A bigger assist came from book lovers themselves. Folk musician Kate MacLeod, an old friend of Sanders’, urged him to start a crowdfunding campaign. It launched on GoFundMe.com on Pioneer Day, July 24.
“In the first 10 days, people gave us $100,000,” Sanders said. As of Wednesday, the tally stood at $162,365, with pledges from some 2,900 donors.
“It has been the most overwhelming and humbling project I have ever taken on in my life,” Sanders said. “Do you know how long it takes to send personal emails to [2,900] people, to thank them for their donation? I feel like if they give me money, I have to say ‘thank you,’ at the very least.”
The crowdfunding campaign, as well as online sales during the pandemic, showed Sanders that his store attracts a younger demographic than he thought.
Younger people, he said, “have a hundred different ways of occupying their time these days that did not exist when I was a child. But they’re still book lovers. I can’t keep used [copies of Edward Abbey’s] ‘Desert Solitaire,’ or classic literature, in stock. They’re reading good stuff.”
The GoFundMe campaign, Sanders said, was “a mandate, if you will, that they want me to keep doing this.”
Not that Sanders was likely to stop. “I should just go quietly into retirement, but it’s just not in my temperament,” he said. “I’m not ready to quit. For one thing, I have too many bloody books.”