94 Years Selling Books
My memory contains some 50 of our years in the book business, from the late 1960s until now. It’s a great heritage but some of what I learned is now obsolete, and I believe my efficacy and pleasure are best served focusing on the present. Well-established in Trolley Square for almost 12 years now, we enjoy the custom and affection of contemporary Salt Lake City readers. Many of Weller Book Works’ good traits could not have developed without our history but had Sam not broadened Gus’s vision and had Catherine and I not reassessed Sam and Lila’s, we might not have survived the decades. I am proud of us for not permitting our storied past to prevent us from evolving along with our culture. Our bookstore has accommodated numerous cultural shifts in its time. Controversy aside, I truly wish I could show our forebears what we have become.
Here is a very brief recapitulation of our bookstore’s founding and past. My grandfather and grandmother, Gustav and Margaret Weller were Mormon converts who immigrated to Salt Lake City from Germany via Canada in the spring of 1925. They came with five children, adding seven more within the decade. Sam Weller was the third child. Before August of 1929, Gus Weller ran a mostly second-hand shop called Salt Lake Furniture, Bedding and Radio at 14 East 1st South. I never heard my grandfather’s description, but Sam, who was only eight when it occurred, remembers that his father encountered a large and quality collection of LDS books in the course of his work and decided to change his business into Zion’s Bookstore. We believe it happened in August 1929, right before the Great Depression hobbled the Nation. With his adolescent and teenage children, Gustav operated the bookstore for a decade, moving it twice, before moving the younger part of his family to Marion, Utah to farm. In 1932 he had moved the bookstore to 28 East 1st South and in 1939, to 65 East 2nd South. After 1939, he staffed the store with the older children, who had remained in Salt Lake City when he moved to the farm.
In 1943, Sam was drafted into the army to fight in World War Two. By then, his older brother John had left the family business and while the war was fought, Zion’s Bookstore was staffed by the three oldest Weller daughters, Ruth, Rachel and Eve. In January, 1946 Sam was discharged and returned to Salt Lake City hoping to use the GI Bill to attend college. But his father had a different idea, and Sam, at the age of 24, took responsibility for his father’s business, which had not fared well during the depression and the war. But post-war economies were better and Sam’s hard working ethic and extreme charisma enabled him to save the bookstore and grow it in the late 1940s and ’50s. As present-day defenders of freedom of the press, we enjoy knowing that during this period, Sam covertly sold banned books by Henry Miller and DH Lawrence to trusted clients, and also resisted local calls for him to not sell certain works critical of the Mormon Church—most notably Fawn Brodie’s recently published and hailed biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History. It is doubtful he mentioned such to his father.
Not long after meeting Sam in his bookstore, Lila was hired as secretary to Theron Liddle, Managing Editor at The Deseret News. Lila and Sam started dating and she began moonlighting in the bookstore, relieving Sam of bookkeeping. In 1953 they married. She resigned from Des. News and added her skills to Sam’s in the bookstore, controlling the cash flow and innovating a sophisticated pre-computer inventory system that would endure until the first computers entered our bookstore in 1989. I sometimes imagine her as the producer and my father as the master of ceremonies.
In 1961, Sam and Lila moved Zion’s Bookstore to its fourth location at 254 South Main Street. This is the location most readers remember. When the bookstore first moved into the David Keith Building, it was extremely similar in size, dimensions and staff to the one we operate today. By the time we relocated in 2011, we had expanded several times to an eventual labyrinth of rooms filled with books. I was born in January 1962 and adopted by the Wellers only days after my birth. I was their only child, and with both parents working, I spent much time in their bookstore, not yet understanding how that culture was seeping into me.
In 1972, my dad put me to work. After school, I rode my bicycle downtown to the bookstore to perform menial tasks. I have worked in the bookstore nearly constantly since then. In the early 1980s, Sam’s name was added to the business and we became Sam Weller’s Zion Bookstore. During the ’80s I performed office functions for a few years until Sam began training me to assist with buying and pricing book collections. I also took responsibility for hiring and scheduling. In the 1990s, we dropped Zion and became known as Sam Weller’s Books. Catherine Weller began working here in 1994, following a decade of work in University of Utah libraries.
The 1990s was a decade of chaos for booksellers. While the industry scrambled for balance in the new digital paradigm, we grappled with personal transitional challenges when Sam’s age began to affect his health. When he lost his vision in 1997, his retirement became permanent. At 81, Lila Weller was still in charge of the business finances, but with Sam recently disabled, she retired as well two months hence.
In 2000, Catherine became our lead new book buyer, as she is today. In 2001, I gained membership in the ABAA and ILAB, the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America and the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.
Many bookstores went out of business in the 1990s. Obviously, we survived, but those were not easy years. Many factors combined led us to move following the 2008/2009 recession. And our once-trafficked neighborhood had lost nearly all retail stores that were not within malls. Between 2009 and 2011, we crafted and executed plans to relocate the bookstore. We became Weller Book Works in tribute to our heritage, but indicating a cultural step forward. Our store is old, but we are not; for hell’s sake, we sell ideas.
In 2012, we opened Weller Book Works in Trolley Square. We traded our Main Street basement for free parking on Martin Luther King Boulevard. The first years here were not easy but the move saved the bookstore and now we are marking our 94th year in the book business. Our new stance is comfortably progressive. As booksellers, we respect freedom of the press and the freedom to read. We accept diversity as natural and find joy in it. We will sell you books you want and defend your right to privacy. We are empowering readers and envisioning inclusive cultures that transcend the conflicts of history. How can we read great thoughts and not make them our own?
Collector’s Book Salons
The Collector’s Chat during our July 28th Salon will be given by Nathan Nielson, founder of Books & Bridges, a literary program hosted here at Weller Book Works until displaced by COVID a few years ago. His chat is called “A Russian Literary Journey.” Neilson received a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University in Russian & International Relations and a master’s in Liberal Arts from the Great Books Program of St. John’s College. He worked as a Russian linguist in the intelligence community and works as a public relations and communications professional. Nielson’s literary journey began in Moscow and continues still. He argues that the best way to understand the soul of a people is to dive into their highest literary tradition.
Of his chat, Nathan writes: “Historically, Russians have been a highly literate, well-read population. Their writers are their true prophets and presidents. The vaunted and mysterious Russian soul, though embedded in national soil, has a universal embrace. The great Russian novelists and poets turned the sorrow of tyranny and suffering into beautiful works of human connection, a magical process of alchemy and empathy. To paint a small picture of a people’s big heart, I will discuss and share books I brought from Russia—Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, Aleksandr Pushkin, and other Russian classics.”
The Collector’s Chat at our August 25th Salon will be given by CJ Peterson. He is one of the founders of Nature’s Fusions, a full-service essential oil, cosmetic, and supplement manufacturing company, and sits on the Board of Directors for the Rollins School of Entrepreneurship at BYU. However, CJ’s passion lies in tangible bits of history and he has collected books for his entire adult life. Peterson started Kona Books as a boutique book hunting service in 2009 while living in Chicago. After moving to Utah and attending BYU, he expanded his collection and his clientele until eventually opening a bookstore and an art gallery, Artifacts of History, and The Artifacts Gallery in the Provo Towne Centre Mall in 2021. Today his personal collection reflects the offerings found in his shop and gallery: the history of Utah, Western Expansion, the LDS Church, Music, and Native Americans.
CJ will be talking about his collection and what draws him to collect. He will show a number of rare books owned by early Utah Pioneers such as Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff. He will bring a trumpet owned and played by Louis Armstrong, an interesting artifact from the Pony Express, and some early western art by artists like Charles Marian Russell.