Utah Stories

Independent Bookstores are Here to Stay

Despite the competition of corporate chains, Salt Lake’s independent bookstores still flourish.


Employees at Ken Sanders Rare Books hold a portrait of Ken Sanders, an independent figure in the independent bookstore community.

Salt Lake’s rise and fall of independent bookstores began with the birth of Salt Lake City in 1847 as pioneers desired to create a “religious” downtown area with the Salt Lake Temple being the central focus. In 1869, the city rose to even greater heights with the emergence of the transcontinental railroad. As a result, a more diverse community began to establish itself. Change continued to happen in the 1920’s, when urbanization flourished as the city became more and more modernized with the growth of industry and commerce.

Within all of this modernization came an increased interest in personal learning and growth. It was during this time that the mother of all Salt Lake independent bookstores opened, namely Sam Weller’s. Immediately appealing to both the young and the old, the educated and the curious, more and more bookstores followed. Soon, such places as Cosmic Aeroplane (est. 1967), The Waking Owl (est. 1977) and a Woman’s Place Bookstore (est. 1988) pleased more and more readers, with plans to continue their existence long into the future.

And then “the change” began.

At first, the trickling in of new ideas and plans for downtown Salt Lake brought with it  the Triad Center, and then the Delta Center, the Latter-day Saint Conference Center and eventually the Wells Fargo building.

And then the biggest change of all came with the rise of City Creek Center.

Longstanding Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution was torn down. Old businesses were bulldozed over as this once, low-rent district was forced to yield to high rents from million-dollar condominiums and billion-dollar, worldwide companies. It seemed like overnight, Salt Lake City had become prime real estate.

Ousted from their humble beginnings, bookstores had no choice but to watch their comfortable couches and one-of-a-kind book-lined shelves become replaced by click-of-a-button purchases as internet replacements lured readers into ordering from the convenience of their very own electronic device.

Fortunately, there are still bookstores determined to keep alive the down-to-Earth, bookstore experience, where shelves are still lined with hard copy versions of modern and classic literary works, accompanied by sincere, personalized assistance. Where heartfelt gatherings can still take place and discussions held with other interested parties.  

Ken Sander’s, one of the former owners of Cosmic Aeroplane, has been a solid constant when it comes to independent bookstores. Now the owner of Ken Sanders Rare Books, he claims his tenacity is the number one reason for his long term success. “From my youth I recall The Yarrow, Black and White Books,” and many other bookstores forming Salt Lake City’s independent bookstore environment. He says it was his, “force of will and sheer stubbornness,” that kept him going. “I don’t give up easily and I have learned to learn from my mistakes.”

Sam Weller’s survived the change. Now known as Weller Book Works, they carry on from their newest location inside Trolley Square.

The King’s English Bookshop, 1500 South 1500 East, also remains in existence offering everything from small press to large publishing house books. The Golden Braid, 151 South 500 East, is alive and well, specializing in books dealing with the spiritual and metaphysical subjects.

In a 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center, print remains the dominant way Americans read. Fortunately, for Salt Lake City, the full and engaging independent bookstore experience still flourishes.


Food photos for Hires Big H In Salt Lake City, Utah on Tuesday, November 27, 2012. (David Hungate)

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