Ken Sanders: Pimp of the Printed Word

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the eponymous brick-and-mortar rare book store that bears Ken Sanders’ name. In one form or another, Ken Sanders has been involved with books and the book business his whole life but the genesis from bibliophile to book seller is as interesting as, if not more so, any printed matter that Ken sells on his shelves.

photo: Chris Swainston

“I read books omnivorously from the time I could read,” Ken says. “I don’t ever remember a time when I did not read books.” Born in 1951, Ken’s obsession with books started at a young age. At Woodrow Wilson elementary, Ken read every book in the school’s library that interested him – from the fantasy fiction of Lewis Carroll to the morose horror stories of Edgar Allan Poe. In class, Ken would receive boxes of books from the Errol book shipments, which is something like the Scholastic Book fairs of today. Every week he would get a weekly reader and every month he would order bunches of twenty-five cent paperbacks. “The rest of the class would end up getting a book or two, once in a while a kid would end up getting a handful of books and then I was always the last person the teacher called because I invariably had an entire box of books,” Ken says. “I had more books than the whole rest of the class combined. To me it was a lifeline.” Thanks to his early attachment to books, Ken became a serious book collector by age fourteen.

Fiction, however, was not the only thing that Ken read. He also is a self-described “comic geek” as well. In the early years of the 1960s, comics as an entertaining companion to traditional books were in decline; the late 1950s effectively gutted the medium with a collective smear campaign of “the seduction of the innocent” and the comics code of 1955. Things started changing when Marvel introduced characters like Spiderman, thus reinvigorating a moribund form. “All of sudden, there was this weird superhero named Spiderman and his secret identities, this messed up high school kid, who has all these problems with girls, getting in fights, etc. He’s like Everyman. Wow, a superhero with problems!,” recalls Ken. To feed his growing comic book habit, Ken started to sell his old comics and thus made his first move into the foray of bookselling. “I used to sell underground comic books in the 60s with ads in fanzines saying, ‘you must be over 18 years old to order these books’ but I wasn’t 18! I would also wheel and deal in comic books while I was still in grade school – buy’em for a nickel, sell’em for a dime!”

The mid-60s saw Ken outgrow his taste in Marvel’s superheroes to a more refined palate of underground comics such as R Crumb and the ZAP! crew. A buddy of his introduced him to this new movement in graphic storytelling when he moved to San Jose, California. Every year his friend would come to visit, bringing with him a whole suitcase of new comics for Ken to devour. “In the late 60s and onward, I started doing a lot of comic and sci-fi conventions. In 1973 I drove my old 54 Chevy pick-up truck out to the world’s first underground comic book convention in Berkeley. People really came out of the wood work for those [conventions],” remembers Ken.

In high school, Ken’s reading habits, as well as his life, changed dramatically as his focus shifted from fiction to Western Americana. What eventually would become his rare book specialty developed out of a history class he took at Granite High School from a teacher named Wayne Stimpson. Stimpson pried open his mind to the alternative histories, fascinations and stories of the American West. “He debriefed us that whatever history we had learned up to this point in our life was complete and utter nonsense. It’s just a big lie. He was really the first person to open up my eyes to the fact that there was this real history, this secret history, that existed all along right in front of you, yet it was invisible because it wasn’t the pack full of crap that we had been learning by rote through elementary, junior and high school,” says Ken. Through his new found interest in the history of the West, Ken became exposed to LDS history, the Environmental movement and its authors such as Edward Abbey, Wendall Berry and Wallace Stegner. Ken saw that through the West, all these things were related. “[Western Americana] lead into environmental activism, wilderness and the realization that it’s all connected – the history of this country, the history of this place. It’s like this bookstore has evolved into Utah/Mormon/Western history. Mormon history, regardless of whether you are LDS or not, is absolutely fascinating and Mormon history is one of the most interesting episodes of the history of the West and the history of the West cannot be told without the Mormon experience,” states Ken.

In Ken’s own words, the key to Western history specifically and history in general and why it’s a vital moment in our national identity is this: “I think it’s more vibrant, maybe because I am a Westerner; I appreciate the civil war, I appreciate colonial America and history but it’s the West that really comes alive … maybe because it’s so relatively recent. The experience of what this land was like and this landscape and being able to go out today and wander in the West desert and still see the imprints of the wagons from the Donner/Reed party and other western immigrants, it really brings the history alive. I think what is wrong with how we are taught history in this country – it’s this dead museum fossil thing. You’ve gotta experience it, its gotta come alive. The history, like geology, is so close to the surface here,” Ken explains.

Concomitantly, Ken became a printer; a natural extension of his passion for books. At the time two friends of Ken’s, Steve Thorton and Willy Realms, ran a printing company called Vanguard Graphics. Rob Brown, another friend of Ken’s, drew a poster of a hobbit from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which was subsequently printed by Vanguard Graphics and became a local best seller. “I used to go around to the Artists Workshop in Trolley Square, Bob’s College Bookshop up by the U, the general store, the Cosmic Airplane, and sell these posters. They were a dollar retail and I wholesaled them for 50 cents. I sold out a thousand of them and I had Vanguard Graphics print them for me. That’s how I got interested in printing and for a while I apprenticed there,” says Ken. “I learned how to run the letterpress and old machinery there. They printed a lot of rock and roll posters in the early 70s for United Concerts and other places and I really got interested in printing.”

The evolution to the current manifestation of Ken Sanders Rare Book Store started in 1967 with the incarnation of a hippy head shop called Cosmic Airplane. Cosmic Airplane was founded by Steve Jones and its first location was located next to the Phillip’s Gallery on 9th and 9th. The Cosmic Airplane specialized in bohemian counter-culture items such as pipes, radical political books, music, etc. “Steve was always indulgent about people wanting to do stuff so I would sell comics, graphic novels, undergrounds, just stuff that I was into out of the store. Steve never had any money so when he had to get all his supplies in during the week, the merchandise got shipped to him by Greyhound COD, I would loan him fifty bucks Thursday or Friday, he would get his stuff out of hoc, sell it over the weekend and pay me back Monday,” Ken says. But by 1980, Ken expanded his modest book selling business into a bona fide publishing press, Dream Garden.

Dream Garden realized Ken’s goal of publishing things he was interested in, mainly books on Utah history, environmental novels by Edward Abby and Western American history generally. It was at this same time that Ken became heavily involved with Earth First and had the pleasure of getting acquainted with Dave Foreman, co-founder of Earth First, during a heated Mexican stand-off en route to meeting up with famed environmental author Edward Abby at the lone rock campground in the canyon lands. “There were at least three or four hard case, cowboy looking dudes standing there, scowling at me, arms crossed their chest, cowboy boots and hats on. They wanted to know who the fuck I am and what the fuck I am doing, and I really didn’t care for their bedside manner. ‘who the fuck are you, and why the fuck do you want to know,’ I said. The last thing in the world I was going to tell these yahoos was that Edward Abbey sent me. Screw them. I backed the truck up, went around them and camped. We had a pretty classic Mexican stand-off. A pretty tense situation at lonerock until later on that evening when Edward Abbey showed up,” recalls Ken. During this time, book selling was secondary to his environmental activities. He continued to publish books under the Dream Garden Press imprint with the R Crumb illustrated Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey and the Edward Abbey Western Wilderness calendar being among his big sellers. “[Book selling] was more of a sideline and then I plunged headlong into publishing and building a publishing empire and at the same time spending a crazy amount of time chasing James Watt, secretary of the interior, around the country,” says Ken.

It’s now 2007 and Ken Sanders and his current book store location have gone through many permutations and faces. Before his current location, Ken and his family owned property on South State street, where he had two locations. Before that, Ken ran Dream Garden Press and his bookstore out of the old KNAK radio studios on Fourteenth South and Seventh West. “There were two rock stations in the valley of the Salt: KCPX and KNAK. They used to duke it out back and forth. For a while, I ran the publishing and book operations out of their old studio in the west side. Then I had an appointment only place down in South Salt Lake prior to doing this [current] location,” Ken remembers.

Ken never thought he would ever go back into retail and actually have physical store front again. One day, when going to collect on a debt, he noticed his current location and on an inclination and a fancy, opened up shop with his daughter, Melissa. “I came down here to collect some money on a publishing debt and, genius that I am, thought it would make a pretty good bookstore. On a whim, we started remodeling and I had absolutely no money at all. I was pretty destitute in those days and this place was pretty dog gone empty,” says Ken. “I had no intention of doing it. There was no plan. Pretty much everything I have done in my life, I do bass ackwards.”

New and used bookstores are closing up all around this country as online retailers, chain stores and big box retailers supply the reading public with mass market books. In spite of it all, Ken attributes his staying power to his adamant orneriness. “I am stubborn and pig-headed. The flip side of that is tenaciousness. Until recently, I have spent almost every waking hour of my life, seven days a week, 100 hours a week, talking eating sleeping books. It’s what I do. I am trying to slack off to do other things. It’s tenaciousness. It becomes a drive and obsession. Simultaneously, it gives me a lot of joy.” It’s a great cultural blessing to have a store like Ken Sanders Rare Books that not only supplies the community with an invaluable and unique literary history, it is literary history. In the end, Ken Sanders is a book himself – a storyteller par excellence. “To this day, I have a hard time eating lunch if I can’t read something. It’s almost like I can’t eat if I can’t read. If my mother said it one time, she said it a billion times, ‘read at the table, whistle in bed, the devil will get you before your dead,’ quips Ken.

To check out his vast selection of new, used and rare books, go to 268 South, 200 East. Stop by, talk to Ken and tell ‘em SLUG sent you.