THE BLOCKS Gallery profile: Ken Sanders Rare Books

When you arrive at downtown Salt Lake City’s Ken Sanders Rare Books (268 S. 200 East), don’t be surprised if you feel as if you’ve stepped out of Utah into a lovely, decades-old, hole-in-the-wall book shop in Cambridge or the West Village. The store’s main interior space is anchored by the cluttered cash wrap (Presided over from above by a series of large cartoon drawing cut-outs of the Monkey Wrench Gang.) and an old velvet sofa, strewn with books, of course. Several rows of floor-to-ceiling stacks, jammed with a huge and fascinating book inventory, make up most of the rest of the store, with a few chairs wedged amid the shelves allowing browsers a spot to sit down and read a chapter or two. But once you take a closer look at the store’s genres and titles, it’s clear that this bookstore is firmly and extraordinarily rooted in its Utah locale.

Ken Sanders Rare Books specializes in writings about Utah, the Mormons and greater Western Americana, with emphases on the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River, Yellowstone and other national parks. (On a recent visit, I found and purchased a book published in 1974 titled Ghost Towns of Montana.) The literary West is also well-represented there, with deep selections by Wallace Stegner, B. Traven and Edward Abbey—hence the Gang cut-outs above the register and t-shirts available for purchase.

Ken Sanders founded his eponymous book store in 1990 and then, along with his daughter, Melissa, moved it to its current location in 1997. Since then the place has become a vital cultivator of the Salt Lake literary community and greater arts scene through both its vast and diverse book inventory and by hosting regular events, including the most attended poetry reading in Utah history—a 50th anniversary tribute to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in 2005. The shop has won many Utah “Best of” awards from Salt Lake City Weekly and in 2003 won the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Award for Contributions to the Arts.     


But books aren’t the only treasures you’ll discover at Ken Sanders Rare Books. Take a hard right after entering the store and you’ll find yourself in the midst of the store’s large collection of maps, prints, postcards, photography and posters. On the walls, there is an obviously rare and valuable selection of old Western U.S. maps and artistic prints (I have my  eye on a line drawing of Park City’s old train depot that hangs there.) On the counters are boxes of more maps, prints and old gig posters, many from downtown landmarks like the Zephyr and Kilby Court. The cool stuff in that section also includes a pair of stereoscopes and a box full of old Salt Lake City places stereographs. 

Ken Sanders’ booksellers are super friendly, knowledgeable and helpful, too. I asked one of the staff (Not Ken Sanders himself, but he was around, as I suspect he is most days.) if a particular book was in their inventory. They didn’t have it, but she took the time to find it on a reliable online source and offered to order it for me.  

Several people wandered through the stacks on the afternoon I visited, reassuring me that, contrary to the popular Smartphone-era refrain, print is not dead. It appears to be alive and well at least in one corner of Salt Lake City, known as Ken Sanders Rare Books. Open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.- 6 p.m., Sunday, noon-5 p.m., 801.521.3819,      

By Melissa Fields