LDS literary community marks a sad chapter with the death of beloved bookseller Curt Bench

He had dealings with bomber Mark Hofmann and a universe of authors. Navigating Mormon history and theology requires good tools, says a friend, and “his tools were books.”

Curt Bench was an inexhaustible, self-described biblioholic.

A book collector and owner of Benchmark Books, he was the kind of guy who always brought a book to the beach while growing up in Los Angeles. The guy who dragged friends over to marvel at a first edition by some obscure Latter-day Saint writer. The guy who ran a rare- and used-books section of Deseret Book until it was undone by forger-murderer Mark Hofmann and an employee embezzler. The guy who started over in the 1980s and built a small but flourishing book business at a time when many others went under.

But Bench was much more than that.

The affable bookseller, who died Tuesday at 68 from a hole in his aorta, was “the axis around which spun an entire universe of diverse types of people,” says Lindsay Hansen Park, executive director of Sunstone. “His shop brought into his orbit scholars, researchers, historians, bibliophiles, collectors, fundamentalists and heretics. Never did a friend leave his store without a free book, a bit of candy or a piece of historical gossip.”

Bench was “as generous with his praise as he was with his friendly teasing,” Park says. “Curt had the respect and admiration of so many people, from all walks of life. He was simultaneously old-fashioned and refreshingly open-minded.”

The bookseller and a handful of friends launched a weekly lunch group more than two decades ago to thrash out their thoughts on issues in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The men, who called themselves the “Latitudinarians,” met mostly at the Old Spaghetti Factory in Salt Lake City’s Trolley Square, and often hosted guests from across the spectrum of belief.

Dan Wotherspoon, who hosts the “Latter-day Faith” podcast, says he has “never met a person more at ease with others, no matter their background.”

Bench’s South Salt Lake bookstore was “a crossroads of extremely active Mormons, history buffs, collectors, as well as fundamentalist Mormons,” Wotherspoon says. “Curt always had time for everyone, listened, and usually had something funny to include. He had a light heart along with his serious and brilliant mind. He was prone to practical jokes, and he’d often compose limericks to celebrate people and things he loved.”

Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess adds that Bench had a flair for dramatic comedy and fun.

“Curt developed a skill of imitating different voices and would prank people by pretending to be someone else, and they would all fall for it,” she says. “He was able to bring humor to dark places — always playful but never mocking.”

At his core, though, Riess says, he was never inauthentic but always grounded and consistent.

The perils of collecting

In the 1980s, two dramatic events undermined Bench’s success: After Hofmann killed two people with pipe bombs, his documents were discovered to be forgeries; and Bench’s bookstore employee embezzled $250,000 from his part of the church company.

Earlier this year, Bench appeared in filmmaker Jared Hess’ two-part documentary, “Murder Among the Mormons,” about Hofmann’s crimes.

“I was always trying to find reasons to hang out with Curt in his bookstore,” says Hess, who met Bench 15 years ago. “A visit to his bookstore always turned into a lunch and a conversation more meaningful than anything I’d had all year. His passion for Mormon history was unmatched. He was my introduction to the story of Mark Hofmann.”

The book dealer “was a saint because he always was there for people who were suffering,” the filmmaker says. “He never judged you. His genuine love, empathy and understanding changed people’s lives.”

That included his family — a wife, Pat, and four children.

Besides books, Bench loved “limericks, Native American jewelry, bolo ties and cuffs,” says eldest son Chris Bench, who now runs the bookstore. “He would always text us pictures of the sky — stormy or dramatic, always sharing the beauty of nature and the feelings they evoked.”

The elder Bench was “the keeper of family dates — birthdays, death days, and always wanted to share stories of loved ones who had died.”

In a word, he was “the bridge builder,” Chris Bench says, “who saw and believed in the true goodness of people.”

A sacred space

After Bench’s Deseret Book gig collapsed, he took all his source lists and customers and started over with his own store at 3269 S. Main, aptly named Benchmark Books.

“The book business, especially when it comes to collectible items, is so ego-driven with collectors willing to throw a ton of money at dealers who find rare things that they are easy to take advantage of, yet Curt never compromised his integrity,” Wotherspoon said. “He was straight with sellers about what he thought he could get for their item, and he offered them to collectors at that price. I never once saw him stray from principles of fairness and forthrightness. He was so honest. It always pained him when he discovered others were not as trustworthy.”

Bench was the “consummate salesperson,” says Emily Jensen, web editor for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. “I remember looking at a book about western Utah history, and he needled me until I bought it, saying how good it would look on our coffee table. I bought it — even though I didn’t even have a coffee table.”

In recent years, the bookstore also became the site of frequent lectures, panel discussions and author signings.

“He’s been such a champion for so many writers, including me, stretching back to ‘Flunking Sainthood’ [her book published in 2011],” Riess recalls. “He was immensely kind.”

Despite being in the book business for so long, she says, Bench seemed to “get as excited about new books as a kid on Christmas.”

Faith matters

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Darius Gray, former leader of Genesis, a support congregation for Black Latter-day Saints, called Curt Bench “my friend, my brother, my mentor and my benefactor. I miss him already.”

Mormonism was the only life Bench knew, he wrote in the recent volume, “Why I Stay 2: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Latter-day Saints.” Its theology and his own spiritual experiences “fortified” his faith.

Still, he wrote, “I do not wear rose-colored glasses ...[and] am under no illusion that ours is a perfect church or that we have flawless leaders or members. I’m aware of most arguments of the critics and have spent considerable time pondering and weighing them.”

Through the years, “I have become more content with ‘believing’ and ‘hoping’ than with ‘knowing,’” Bench wrote. “I am a ‘big tent’ Mormon, feeling there is room inside for all.”

Thus, the collector “was invested in helping members of the church understand both its history and issues today,” Jensen says. “With his leaders’ help, he hosted firesides on some [controversial] topics.”

The one thing Bench “wanted most was for everyone to be well-read, not because he wanted their business, but because he wanted them to know things,” Park says. “He knew, from his own personal struggles, that the tension that came from wanting to be good in a complicated faith required good tools, and his tools were books.”

For Wotherspoon, Bench’s spiritual influence went beyond books.

“He served as a steady and calming influence for me through my own faith wrestles,” the podcaster says. “Whereas I was prone to outbursts and expressions of anguish, he had been there in his own, far more quiet, way, and simply gave me space. I so needed Curt during this time, and I’m forever grateful for this slightly older and much wiser friend and fellow God wrestler.”

Darius Gray, former leader of Genesis, a support group for Black Latter-day Saints, was a long-standing member of the Latitudinarians.

“Curt was an active Christian, an active Saint, an active human, who was concerned with the human experience and the search for truth,” Gray says with emotion in his voice. “He wasn’t just standing on the side as a passive observer. He cared deeply enough to do something.”

Bench was “my friend, my brother, my mentor and my benefactor,” he says. “I miss him already.”