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Gavin's Underground

Tony Weller

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2008-12-28 -

One of the largest bookstores in the United States sits right on Main Street in the heart of Salt Lake City. But you already new that because its been around for almost eighty years.

Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore has been providing the city and to an extent most of Utah a source for rare and hard to find books since 1929, seeing a few location changes, one fire, and three different Wellers leading the store. Not to mention surviving every local and national change from the Great Depression to today. Along the way becoming one of the main cultural centers for the state and a leading local business against chain stores, maintaining their rare collection while changing over the decades to meet the market. I got the opportunity to chat with Tony Weller inside the rare books section about the store, growing up there, taking charge and a number of other topics. Not to mention a tour of the place for some photos and an awesome history lesson of the store from Tony himself.

Tony Weller

http://www.samwellers.com/

Gavin: Hey Tony. First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Tony: I'm a bookseller, been in a bookstore my whole life, third in my family to do this. I was born in 1962, only child, as a kid I was small. Did well in math and science, became a ferocious athlete in my teens and competed in basketball and track despite my small size. I was in to rock n' roll when I was five years old, I got my first Beatles album even though my parents didn't care for that kind of music, but somehow my dad came home with “Meet The Beatles.” Plugged into punk rock when I was a teenager, spent a lot of years being a wild punk rocker boy. Went to college for eight years, never graduated because I think the book business made me a bit schizophrenic in my interests. Took a lot of courses in a lot of different departments and never really graduated. Wish I had but I learned a few things.

Gavin: What kind of courses did you take in college?

Tony: Those credits were mainly chalked up in the art department, English, French and Philosophy. Although I did take one dance class, one linguistics class, one accounting class and one theater class. I was around a bit. I wasn't very good at art, I had an art spirit but I really made a 180 degree personality change when I was about eighteen when I used to be involved in computers, art, math and science, but when I was a senior I lost my fascination with it and decided literature and art were much more interesting. I quit doing competitive sports and spent much more time dancing and playing hacky sack and hiking.


Gavin: I understand you use dice to make choices?

Tony: I roll dice to make decisions, I'm very analytical and I fear I'd be very incapacitated in my tenancies if I hadn't discovered dice as a decision making method in elementary school. I discovered it in the early 70's without any knowledge of role-playing games. And about a decade later I discovered a book by Luke Rhinehart called The Dice man written in 1971, about a guy who rolls dice to make decisions. Rhinehart wrote several books about dice living that are sort of how-to books and how it's useful. I carry four of them which allow me to manipulate 1296 options, and when I roll dice it gives me bad options just as many times as it gives me good options.

Gavin:
What was the experience like growing up in the store?

Tony: Well it seemed normal for most of my life, but of course I think every kid thinks their life is normal and everyone else has weird lives. Being the only child I was communicated with more on an adult level so I read early and communicated well. I was kind of wimpy in my early childhood experiences since I grew up around adults I didn't know how mean kids could be. The viciousness of children really shocked me when I started going to school. But I remember being really shy and quiet, and wondered over and over why the people around me weren't nicer and weren't open minded and were so opinionated but seemed to know so little. I've always found arrogance and ignorance in the same package to be a terrible combination of traits and young people are frequently guilty of it, they know so much but know so little. Bookstores in the 60's attracted educated liberal minded people, and I mistook them for ordinary people so it tended to shape my impression of humanity in a way that couldn't help to be wrong. I thought all people were more open minded and had free-wheeling discussions about anything. When I got out into the world my three main communities were my schools, my church and my parents business, and I'm afraid it was the business that seemed like the most enlightened environment, and it was at church and school where I learned racial and sexist slurs. So I started to see this difference where the book people seemed so cool and enlightened and then I'd go out into the public and people would seem so mean and stupid.


Gavin: How did you eventually come to work on the store and run it?

Tony: I've worked in the store since the 70's, gradually increased responsibilities all along, nothing very notable just regular worker stuff. In 1982 we had lost an old-time bookkeeper in the office, and it had come on the heels of me acing the accounting course that I had taken at the university, so my dad shoved me into bookkeeping for a couple of years. Then I moved to Seattle, lived there for a half a year, when I returned I decided to study art. About the mid to late 80's I started getting very interested in the Rare Book side of our trade and worked around my dad's edges because Sam cast a big shadow and was a pretty egotistical man and was hard to get between him and his books, so I tiptoed around the edges dealing with the books he didn't care about. Which is how my education in rare books on Western Americana, Railroads, Genealogy and Mormonism was delayed but I shot forward in topics that didn't sell as well in Utah. In 1991 my responsibilities took a major increase because my dad was hit with the first of a series of heart and artery problems so I had to take on the proprietor's hat. In 1992 he came back after a great recovery to a store I had been reinventing the way a hippie punk kid with serious reservations about capitalism and the economic system tries to run a bookstore. The next major transition was in 1997, my father woke up to what he thought was the flu and found he was blind. So he retired in January 1997, in March my mother who was running all the finances retired, and in May my wife Catherine gave birth to out daughter and had to take a leave of absence. So i officially fully became the boss in 1997.

Gavin: Was it difficult taking over when he had to quit?

Tony: The second time not so much, the first time was more difficult because I wasn't yet ready for it. I was inexperienced and had some ideals that were naive. Because of books I had become peculiar and different than the people I grew up with. Books opens door to people from every period and every country and every persuasion, so you read more books and it opens the potential for the human. And so this anarchism and suspicion of capitalism made taking over the business pretty challenging for me. I had lost my faith in most authorities, and so to assume the role of an authority I found to be a real philosophical conundrum. And I figured I'd be really candid about that and invite them into the process, but I wasn't short on ideas and if I needed ideas I knew how to get them. So I felt like we knew what we should do, but my disrespect for authority had me thinking I can't just tell the staff what to do, they need to be a part of it. So we had a lot of pot luck dinners and brainstorming sessions and played with democratic principals in the workplace and team-based management, but they didn't work out so well. I realized that for all of my love for my staff, that some of them just weren't visionary or motivated, and for all of their good traits they weren't people who would envision amazing futures. Some of them were content with coming to work, doing their job, and going home at night. And over the years I've come to the realization that it is foolish to collaborate with everyone, because even though I believe in equality we are all different. So now I'm more in the mindset or coordinating people into their best rolls than attempting to have everyone behave like equals.

Gavin:
So how does it differ from when you first took over to now?

Tony: I had some early struggling years trying to manage it, but now we're much more traditional. We solicit more feedback than my dad did when he was running the place and it is a much more collaborative environment. For instance Sam did everything by himself, Sam knew what was right and he told people what to do. We have weekly management meetings where there are five of us who each have different responsibilities and we discuss them. So it isn't a democracy, but it's certainly more a group effort than it was under my dad's leadership when it was more authoritarian.

Gavin: What was it like sitting through the Beautification Project in the 80's?

Tony: Oh it was tough, it bankrupted a lot of businesses in the neighborhood, as did the lightrail construction did later on. It hurt us most certainly, and I think at that time Jake Garn was as tuned to the community as Deedee Corradini was a few years later. The people on the street had ideas about how things could work better and to a large degree were ignored. And that's frustrating because parking really hurts us down here, and it's not that there's too little parking it's that Utah citizens are accustomed to free parking within sight-line of their destination. So we have parking that is more challenging down here because it's the densest part of the valley. I don't expect it to be free, I just think the city hasn't really managed it as well as they could have, and to some degree they've been too precious about what I call The Hollow God of Capitalism. But they insist on treating parking lot operators like they're equal to the rest of us and they aren't. People come downtown to go to Sam Weller's or the theater or Lamb's or Market Street or Beehive Coffee Tea House, they don't come downtown to visit Diamond or Beehive parking. They're parking is incidental in the relationship, yet they have immense control over the experience of anyone visiting the city. I think of how we had to choose between the plantations and the higher value of free people, it was right to abolish slavery but it was bad for plantation owner's business. I think we have to accept to a large degree what is good for parking lot operators is bad for our neighborhoods, and the city should take the upper hand and manage parking on a break-even basis. I believe what they loose in revenue from parking would be made up with other businesses that begin to fill some of the vacancies down here, or existing businesses whose business would be improved and put more money into the taxes.

Gavin:
Going back a bit, in 72' the store suffered a major fire. What was that experience like?

Tony: I think it's fair to say that up until that time I thought Sam Weller was a type of demigod. He was the most powerful man I'd ever known, he seemed to be respected by everyone and he never quit, my dad's a fighter. He's a Depression Era kid, and immigrant kid who was picked on all through his youth, grew up in a large and poor family living through the Depression, fought in WWII and came back, lived in the bookstore... he's a tough guy. But when the bookstore burned all night long and virtually destroyed the family business, it was the first time I'd ever seen the guy cry. And he didn't cry until the fire marshal said he could not re-enter the building, because while it burned he and other staff members were rushing in and out hauling the most valuable books they could find in the areas that weren't in trouble, racing to cars and throwing things in trunks and back seats just to rescue what could be rescued because it was clearly a bad fire. But there was one point where the fire marshal said he couldn't go back in and were afraid the building would collapse and they weren't going to lose him in there. And that's when my dad had his meltdown and it was the first time I realized he wasn't Superman.

Gavin: Are there any areas still around from the fire?

Tony: Oh yeah, there are rooms upstairs that haven't been treated much since then. But I remember being there as a ten year-old with an eleven year-old who was the son of another worker here, standing behind the barricades watching the building burn and our dads running in and out. We knew this block like our homes because we practically lived here, so we wandered down the street and sat in The King Joy Cafe which was down the street at the time, called our moms to tell them what was happening. They had sent me home at about 4AM in a police car because Sam was staying to watch the whole tragedy. He was driving home with one of my favorite former staff members covered in soot and just tired from hauling books out, and before Sam got home driving out of downtown with the store smoldering, he's pulling over at every address he sees with a vacant building and a sign on the front. He hadn't even gone to bed yet and he was scoping out a new location. I admire my dad for this kind of fortitude, if there's anything I learned from that man it's not to quit in the face of adversity. I think that skill might do me well right now. But we moved to State street for a year and then we were back in this location.

Gavin:
Aside from the coffee shop, have there been any big changes in the store over the past decade?

Tony: Well we've expanded a couple times which seems really foolish now, since we're trying to scale back due to the economic state of affairs. We brought in The Coffee Garden and we love having them here. We brought in the Scrub Oak Bindery upstairs, they do fine hand bindery and book restoration. That's part of my vision of using our property to create a symbiotic family of businesses here on Main Street. We did adopt a much more formal management structure here. For years I tried to manage the store by myself, in 2002 we reorganized.
That involved non-Weller family managers and it is currently in the second incarnation. We of course made some moves towards internet work Although the last few years we've been encumbered with computer problems that we can't seem to get behind us. We invented our own system because no one had a system that we wanted back in 1994 when we began these efforts, so now we have a home-made database and the original programmer is now three programmers away from us, and each programmer has to learn what the last one did and none of them have documented their work all that well. We'd really appreciate it if we could find an off-the-shelf version of this software now that we've nursed it along for 14 years.

Gavin: On the inventory, do you keep everything that comes your way or do you exchange and toss stuff out?

Tony: Well we don't buy everything that is offered to us, I was trained to do it that way but as the bigger corporations started to glut the marketplace with even more product we found we just couldn't buy everything that came our way. So over the years we've become really more selective in our buying, but it hasn't reduced the inventory because there are more books out there to be bought. But it does mean that people who buy common stuff or take poor care of their books are annoyed with us now because the more cared for and selective titles are the ones that receive offers. If you bought it at the grocery store and beat it up, I promise you can't donate it to me. Sections also become too crowded and we pick the oldest and least desirable material and it can go to either our bargain rooms, or if it's not as common we'll price it cheaper and give it a few more years on the shelf. The buyers are the only people who make those decisions, not the staff.

Gavin: If someone wants a specific book are you able to get it?

Tony: Usually because if we don't have it we will order what is available to be ordered. We also do out-of-print searches but then it becomes of of a question of cost. There's some books that are rare in the truest sense of the word rare, which means not expensive it just means you can't find it. So it wouldn't matter if you were a multi-billionaire you couldn't have it because you couldn't locate it. There are books that are rare but inexpensive because no one cares about them and there's not much occasion to talk about those or they're not very interesting. But we will go out and search for books for people if they want something that they can't find. If we can't find it we also have a request file where we file away names of things we couldn't locate.

Gavin: A little state-wide, what are your thoughts on the local literary scene, both good and bad?

Tony: I mostly know it from a book buyer's perspective. I think its fair to say that since I became a father that I don't get out. I love the idea that we have a poetry slam scene, makes me very happy, but I don't attend poetry slams because I don't have time to participate or enjoy those things. We have a lot of readings going on in the city these days, some of it I'm a little cynical about because I think publicists have decided that reading tours are great publicity tools. I disagree, I think they're great tools to increase your market if you're already recognized, but if people don't know your name it would be better to have an interview on the radio or something in the newspaper than to be in a bookstore where people will walk by and say “...Who?” I love the Dewey Decimal Series that the library is doing, they're bringing some amazing writers and thinkers to town. And the Westminster Poetry Series have also been very successful in bringing notable poets to Salt Lake City. I will say there has been a slow decreasing interest in things that used to sell well for us like Western Americana and Military, but what I have seen increasing over time is interests in Science, Mathematics and Economics.

Gavin: Any changes in what people have been buying in rare books?

Tony: A more frustrating thing we've seen in the post-internet era is a changing in collectors spirits. It used to be bibliophiles who chose to collect rare books and they'd focus with interest. Now we seem to have a group of high-rollers who buy books for boasting rights rather than an intellectual reasons. In the old days a guy might like Jack London and he would want all of his books and his goal would be to have a first edition of each in his collection. Now you'll find the collector who only wants Call Of The Wild, and then he wants The Old Man & The Sea and Atlas Shrugged and The Hobbit. So he wants the high points. But you don't see the more focused collectors which has tended to drive the price of those high points very high and the rest of the works very low in the internet era. So I'd say about 90% of books went down in value with the internet.

Gavin: On local writers, do you have any favorites that you enjoy?

Tony: I was extremely fond of Ellen Malloy who died prematurely a few years ago. Terry Tempest Williams, everyone loves Terry, she worked here in the 70's and we consider her a friend. I see Will Bagley quite frequently. I like Will and his no holds barred honesty about history and his willingness to make assertions about things, I like his outspoken nature. I consider Michael Quinn a friend, he doesn't live here now, author of The Mormon Hierarchy and A Biography Of J. Ruben Clark and Early Mormonism & The Magic World View. Of course we're thrilled we have local stardom in Stephanie Meyer with her vampire series. My daughter is more affectionate towards that than I, it was a little too teen girl for me, but I think it's really neat that she's done so well. We have family storytime every night and we've been doing that all eleven years of her life and I hope to continue doing that with her until she's no longer in our house. Brian Evanson is no longer local but I loved his first book Altmann's Tongue, what a creepy writer he is. Alex Caldiero, can't forget Alex, he's like a spiritual companion of mine, we think the same things at the same moment, it's really weird. He does really riveting presentations of poetry and art. Brigham Madson was a really sweet guy, what a gentlemen. Leonard Arrington was also a great guy. Wallace Stegner, I was a little too young to pay as much attention as I might have, but my mom and dad were friends with him and spent some time around him as a kid, he was a sweet man.

Gavin: How do you view yourself and other local stores holding up against bigger chains?

Tony: Well I know they all struggle. I've been involved with Vest Pocket and Local First Utah and consider myself an opponent of publicly traded corporate retail outfits. I feel I've studied the principals of local economics and find no flaws in the theories and think that every community would be better off if we just restored all services to local citizens. I see no advantages, in fact I see distinct disadvantages to permitting the kind of corporate colonization that is represented by places like Walmart, McDonalds, Starbucks, Barnes & Nobel. I'm very much against such things. I would not want every town to have its own automaker, I suspect that the quality would suffer and that there are efficiencies gained by having centralized auto manufacturing. I cannot figure out what is gained by having corporate chains create hamburgers for me. I think local people can do that.

Gavin: Do you view other local stores like Ken Sanders and King's English as competition or as comrades?

Tony: Something in the middle. We do compete and when you're in a situation where there just isn't enough business to go around, it is a little harder to feel the comradery towards those who are in our field. But we're friendly to both stores and they're friendly to us and we refer custmers to each other's businesses. But there have been times where we've wanted an author event and every store knows you just can't send an author to every store in town and have it be profitable, sometimes one event is all that can be held in a community. And if it goes to another store rather than ours, yeah, it stings. But I'm sure the same has happened to them on occasion. With Ken we're usually competing over the same libraries when we're purchasing or selling books. We're all friendly but we do compete over the same market. But I would much rather loose a sale to either of those stores than Barnes & Nobel or Amazon, because even though it doesn't help my store as much it does help the community. A dollar spent at either of them is better for Salt Lake city than a dollar spent at a chain.

Gavin: Do you feel like books are going in decline from online publishing, or will there always be an audience for a handheld copy?

Tony: Both. And I've thought about this extensively for about two decades, I'm sure now things I was predicting almost twenty years ago are becoming true today. The book market is shrinking and will continue shrinking, but it won't disappear. I think it will be divided along the lines of use. If you want something in-depth and enduring, the book is probably going to remain superior to the computer. But if you want it briefly, if you don't need 400 recipes you only need one, or if you have something that needs to be updated frequently, those things will gravitate more toward computer technologies. Its hard to imagine how the computer is going to outdo the simple novel that can be bought for six bucks can carried around in a bag and the batteries never die and it never malfunctions and is there when you need it. If you live in Salt Lake you may choose to buy an inexpensive novel. If you travel a lot you might say “I can't carry twenty novels with me but I can carry the text in a bundle.” So I think those uses will split the market, but I believe in ten years from now the marketplace for books is liable to be half the size it is today. And its the challenge for stores like us to figure out what the future citizen will want from a bookstore.

Gavin: I've had discussions about people bringing in a USB drive and downloading the books right there upon purchase.

Tony: Yeah, but I still wonder. I like my iPod but most of the music in my iTunes file is from CD's. One day we had a bad, bad problem with our computer and all of my playlists disappeared. And the things I had bought online were gone, the things I had copied from CD I could copy again. And in that regard there's something to the permanency of the book, that I have books here that are 500 years old, and if they're written in English I can still access data in those books. But you can't find a computer and the software that can read the encoding of software that was written ten years ago. So that is something to consider.

Gavin: What can we expect from the store over the next year?

Tony: Damned good question! I don't know, we're honestly nervous about the economics. We already reduced our staff by a third over the past nine months, we have not laid off a single person. But we are conceiving of a smaller store, trying to move some sections out of the basement so we can run a smaller facility until we can find that exact balancing point in books because we're a little top heavy with labor and inventory for the current marketplace. In parallel to that it is my hope that I am pursuing the only way a poor creative guy knows how is to find other symbiotic businesses like Coffee Garden or Scrub Oak who might enjoy doing business near us, and because our share of this building is paid for we believe we can offer a cheaper subleases in the building than most people in this neighborhood. So I hope I can find a few more local businesses, but don't have any takers yet.

Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?

Tony: We have the largest selection of new and used books in the community and I think especially now where people are hurting for money that books provide a really good value for the investment. You get far more time out of a book than you do out of a video or CD, not to mention the intellectual benefits of reading that psychologists have studied inside out and no one disagrees yet that nothing does more for the development of one's brain, intellect and cognitive skills than reading. You get more by reading a book from a genius than talking to that same genius because in the book the ideas can be real organized. We have a lot of second-hand books that look almost brand new and remarkably unused for used book prices. Great time to buy used books, they're cheaper than ever!

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