Maybe City Weekly is a jinx. Both times this newspaper has opened an office downtown, the next-door business has fallen on hard times. The newspaper’s former digs in the Shubrick Building on 400 South have been emptied out by order of the federal government and, along with once-neighboring Port O’ Call, are scheduled for the wrecking ball to make way for a new courthouse.
Or, take last week’s announcement from City Weekly’s Main Street neighbor of the past five years. Sam Weller’s Books is looking to move after 80 years in business and 48 years on Main Street.
The announcement won’t impact City Weekly, which rents space from the building’s other half-owner, the Dahle family, that once operated a clothing store in the building. But Tony Weller’s decision to downsize his store and sell his half of the David Keith building has many downtown folks ruminating both about the future of Main Street and the oft-predicted death of the book itself.
“It’s truly an end of an era,” says Ken Sanders, namesake of Ken Sanders Rare Books on 200 East and a one-time employee of Sam Weller’s. “It’s a metamorphosis really, but it is [also] an end. Whatever Tony and Cat are going to do, it isn’t going to be Sam Weller’s Books anymore. It’s going to be something of their own.” That truth—that the next Weller’s will be wholly the creation of Tony, his wife Catherine and the “geniuses” Tony says work for them—has excited Tony Weller, who took over the family bookstore made famous by his father.
But the change also will mean the last of the big, independent locally owned bookstores in Salt Lake City. At least prior to an inventory-thinning sale that began March 16, Sam Weller’s had more than 1 million books stocked inside its cathedral-like interior. The bookstore’s promise was it could find virtually any book, anywhere.
It was a temple for book lovers, says Weller. But book lovers can’t support a business the size of Sam Weller’s by themselves. The casual reader also has to buy. And the Internet has zapped casual reading, he says. “Big bookstores just don’t get the attention we used to get,” Weller says. “It’s a damned shame for people who love books. [But] the difference between people who love books and the people who like books is substantial.”
Weller has been thinking of downsizing for years, but the past six months of recession convinced him the time is now. The bookstore currently has 22 employees, down from 40 one year ago. Weller says the new store will stay in downtown. He is currently shopping for a building he intends to purchase with proceeds from selling the half of the David Keith Building he owns at 254 S. Main. A purchaser has not been found yet, he said. A new experience is needed to interest people in reading again, Weller says. His new store won’t be based on anything but his own imagination. Plans aren’t yet fully formed, but include partnering with nonbook businesses in a single space. Weller says he has asked his two current tenants, Coffee Garden and Scrub Oak Bindery, to move with him. The move will be the fifth in the bookstore’s 80 year history.
The store was opened by Tony Weller’s German immigrant grandfather in 1929. It was moved in 1961 to its current location by Tony Weller’s father, Sam Weller, where it grew to enjoy a national reputation for expertise in Western Americana and Mormon books.
Weller’s announcement has Coffee Garden owner Alan Hebertson thinking about the future of Main Street. Hebertson opened a shop in Weller’s lobby four years ago while his flagship 9th & 9th location was being relocated. He likes to think he been part of a small renaissance of cool on Main Street, and hates to think the future of “our little block” is the spanking new mall-condo-grocery City Creek development under construction two blocks north on State Street.
Hebertson said he would like to keep the coffee shop on Main Street, if possible. “Weller has given us such an incredible deal on the place. I’m afraid anything else on Main won’t be like that,” he said. “I’m not going to give up.” Downtown Alliance director Jason Mathis says downtown isn’t dying, it’s “in a state of dynamic change and flux” with increasing numbers of downtown residents creating demand for restaurants and stores. The day after Weller’s announced it was moving, Mathis attended the opening day of a new Main Street restaurant, Eva, located one block from the bookstore.
In fact, many Main Street retailers have been hanging on for City Creek construction, hoping it will bring foot traffic to the street.
The alliance conducted a business round-table March 17 touting downtown construction projects it said will be worth $5 billion to downtown´s economy between 2005 and 2012. Rob Dahle, whose family owns half of the David Keith building, said he would like to hold on to interest in the building to see if business picks up with City Creek and the new Hamilton Partners high-rise office building that is just finishing construction down the street. “We’d be a lot smarter to sell it,” he said. “We just think that maybe one of these days, it´s just got to come back.”
But the Dahles don’t have cash to buy Weller out and keeping part ownership will mean finding a new business partner. Dahle said it is more likely that getting full value from a sale will mean putting the entire building on the market. He said his first priority was doing right by the Wellers and the memory of Dahle’s father Larry who put together a partnership with Tony’s father Sam. Weller says he hasn’t given up on books: “Unlike some, I don’t think books are dinosaurs relegated to extinction.”
Sanders, whose rare bookstore isn´t going anywhere, agrees with him. Sanders started his first bookstore inside Cosmic Aerospace in the mid-1970s. Then, his was one of four independent locally owned bookstores in Salt Lake City. “We didn’t know how good we had it,” Sanders says. “First, we had the chains eating the independent bookstores alive. Now, ironically, the Internet is feeding off the chains, and they’re all going to die.” It’s all part of the evolution of book selling, Sanders says. But book lovers will always need a place to gather.
“We’re always going to be around in some form,” he says. “In fact, I’ll go so far as to make a prediction … There will come a time in the future where the independent bookstores that are left standing will almost become sacred spaces where people will come to so they can actually smell, and feel, and touch books—and read books and converse with other fellow booklovers.
“We will see a time when bookstores will become revered,” Sanders prophesizes. He’s just isn’t sure he’ll live long enough to see it.