1929 – 2021: From Zion’s to Weller Book Works
By Tony Weller
I wonder what Gus Weller would think of Weller Book Works, the bookstore that grew from the one he started in August 1929 at the cusp of the great depression. I also would enjoy Sam’s thoughts about the bookstore we built in Trolley Square. The store named Zion’s by Gus, grew to Sam Weller’s under my parents, Lila and Sam, and became Weller Book Works under Catherine’s and my guidance when we opened in Trolley Square, January 2012.
Until my father was gone, I didn’t realize how much his cheers and criticism colored my days. His expressive temper was legendary but his loyalty and support for persons he loved was deep. I took energy from his fervor and shared his pride in operating a monumental bookstore. The culture of our bookstore is larger than any other that influenced me. Diversity, respect for learning and freedom, and idealistic visions are common to avid readers and seemed like worthy ideals to me.
With Lila Weller’s passing in April, we’ll begin our 93rd year of bookselling fully within the third generation. My father put me to work when I was 10 years old in 1972. Catherine joined the family bookstore in 1994, after years of work in the University of Utah Library System. She became head new book buyer in 2002.
A bookstore is a place where ideas, history, stories and knowledge are stored in books a person can own. Selling books is complex work for moderate pay. Independent bookstores are curated by ardent booksellers whose passion and choices of books make each indie store unique. Bookstores reflect the sensibilities of their buyers and the communities where they operate. In 92 years, our bookstore has experienced many changes, some by influence of proprietors, others by the culture around. The bookstore we run today is not much like the tiny, second-hand LDS store started by my grandfather in 1929.
As he later did with me, my father Sam was put to labor in the bookstore as a child by his father. But Gus Weller’s interest turned to farming in 1939, and when Sam returned from World War II, Gus compelled him to run the struggling business. The work grew on Sam, and by 1950 I believe he was attached to his role. But for Sam, LDS was more topic than religion, and he didn’t shy away from selling anti-Mormon or fundamentalist titles. If a GI buddy happened in with a duffle bag of Henry Miller from France, or D.H. Lawrence from Italy, Sam did not mind making deals to acquire the besought banned titles. He kept them under the counter, where there was likely also a bottle of bourbon. Did Sam announce these choices to Gus who lived an hour away on a farm? I doubt it.
I am Sam and Lila’s only child, and Sam was clear about expecting me to run the bookstore one day. Through most of my youth I accepted the idea, and when medical conditions threatened Sam in the early 1990s, psychologically and by his assertion, I became boss.
I am in love with our bookstore. I like to believe that Gus and Sam would approve of what we do today, and though we have deviated from their likely paths, I feel their influence in bringing us here. Culture quakes of the 1990s destabilized bookstores and publishers. During our struggle I thought about the types of books we sell and the ways they could be sold as we re-envisioned our bookstore after 50 years on Main Street. The shopping district that once embraced our bookstore, between the 1980s and the millennium, had disappeared. We occupied a beautiful historic building with perfect access to TRAX but no parking. In 2008, when we first realized we would relocate and reinvent, we counted 79 years in the trade.
We sold new books, second-hand books, and rare books. By the millennium, there were more ways to sell books than in the past. As we projected our bookstore into a future we enumerated them: bookstore, online store, book fairs, catalogs, and “appointment only.” Topically, we were accustomed to over 400 subject areas.
But following the tumultuous 1990s, many booksellers moved from physical stores to online sales and, in the cases of rare book dealers, to book fair and appointment methods. Many narrowed inventory by specializing. The disappearance of open bookstores reduced the number of books available to your eyes and fingers.
Likewise, we had to evaluate our inventory. When I consider the types of books we sell, I am encouraged. I love the new books presenting today’s ideas and tales, they are spearheads of culture. And I love old books, where the canons of cultures are held secure. I love inexpensive books. Books are to minds what food is to flesh. Along with safety, food, housing, air, water, meaningful work, education and medical care, a civilized society should guarantee books to its citizens. If we’re stuck with capital transactions let us praise inexpensive books. But let them be well made. A sustainable future demands well-made stuff. Cheap, beautiful, and durable books are part of my vision! But even so, I enjoy owning great and rare editions of books I esteem. I try not to question happiness as vigorously as I question dissatisfaction. So I don’t ask myself why it makes me happy to have Emma Goldman’s autograph in a hardcover copy of Anarchism. But it does make me very happy. I value new books and old books, from humble to precious.
Some books I love, and some books that shaped me were not recommended by bright friends, but found by chance or serendipity, in a manner similar to how I have discovered interesting persons and made friends in our bookstore. Rich things happen here.
By my teens I knew there was treasure in books. Reading made me an independent thinker and by young adulthood I traced my beliefs to books. I still relish the mind and soul shaping influence they have. Reinventing Sam Weller’s Books there was no way I would not build another bookstore: a cathedral of civilization. Books traverse chasms of time, diminish distance and guide readers through the space between cultures. We built Weller Book Works to feed your curiosity, your mind and your soul, and our own.
Experience and learning shape uncultured and unlearned children into differentiated adults. As we age, like planets propelled away from the big bangs of our births, time individuates us. Readers, by selecting books, influence their own development. The propulsion of readers might take them far from their origins. Authoritarian cultures resist principles that threaten the mythos of their power. So reading and education are revolutionary.
I believe by selling books we fertilize progress. Any reading is good for the mind but at our moment in time, I have felt especially proud to sell bold idea books, ones that help guide us through complicated concerns. Every time I walk into our bookstore, I get excited about the ideas in books. I am grateful for informed authors who take the time to write them. Also for the editors and publishers who nurture them and cull out the unready. My interests have widened throughout my life. The focused attention of good authors gives me the ability to be a generalist, arranging the gleanings of great minds into personal knowledge. I am enthralled by what I find in books.
Most past wisdom was trampled under power. In our time, great thinkers are producing important works that will influence and endure. But alas, very few of us are at culture’s vanguard and perceptive and bold enough to recognize them. I am excited and also awed and finally comfortable with feeling overwhelmed by the riches we sell.
I am not alone in anxiety about the trajectory of our culture, country and world. In this month of our 92nd anniversary, my main hopes are for the civilization of our world. I have the good fortune to be married to the excellent bookwoman, Catherine Weller, our new book buyer. Her reading advice is astute—you feel its benefit when you shop in our store.
My worries and hopes are complex, but I tried to distill them when I asked Catherine to show me some influential contemporary books addressing the urgent issues of our era.
Here are four titles she chose. Make an assignment for yourself. And please remember that our progress will not be brighter than our vision.
After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality.
Edited by Heather Boushey, J. Bradford DeLong and Marshall Steinbaum. Harvard, 2017. Paperback, $19.95.
Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling back to Save Democracy.
By David Daley. Liveright, 2021. Paperback, $16.95.
Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice that Shapes What We See, Think and Do.
By Jennifer L. Eberhardt, PhD. Penguin, 2019. Paperback, $18.00.
All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis.
Edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson. One World, 2020. Paperback, $18.00.