Ken Sanders: A lifelong labor of love

In his youth, Ken Sanders couldn’t wait to break free of the Beehive State and the mainstream culture he found oppressive.

Life had other ideas for him.

Today, Sanders, owner of Ken Sanders Rare Books, has embraced Utah and the role of business leader he finds himself holding in it.

“We try to be a secular gathering place for the city,” says Sanders. “Every person who works here brings their own taste and sensibilities to the store, and everybody who walks through the door impacts the store, as well, mostly in a positive manner. It makes it a really fun gathering place—the disparity and diversity of people who might walk in here on any given day.”

His bookstore, which he opened in 1990, is stuffed to the gills with more than 100,000 books on every subject imaginable. From discount paperbacks in the front to rare books worth hundreds or thousands of dollars, his store is the stuff of bibliophilic dreams.

Sanders, a vocal member of Local Utah First, started his career working part-time at Cosmic Aeroplane, a store with a dedicated fan following that sold radical items like science fiction books. In 1980, he founded Dream Garden Press, a publishing company that produced several works of critical acclaim, including The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey and books of poetry by Ken Brewer and Sicilian-born “sonosopher” Alex Caldiero. Although the publishing company turned out to be more of a labor of love than a profitable business, Sanders still prints the odd book, such as a recent songbook by Kate MacLeod, and considers the publishing work he has done to be, in many ways, his way of helping to preserve art that would otherwise be lost.

“I just publish books because I like them, and like these songbooks and poetry books, one by one, I feel like I’m building a legacy with them because these are voices that wouldn’t be heard otherwise,” Sanders says. “I do it out of love now.”

Sanders’ love of books started early, and he became a serious book collector as a teenager. His interest and expertise have only increased in the decades since, and he has become one of the top in his field; he has appeared on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow to appraise books on-screen, and he occasionally guest-lectures at the University of Utah. He says he has always been passionate about books, about the information they convey, about what the dusty volumes say about the people who created them—the valuable collectors editions and dime-store paperbacks alike.

“I have to be surrounded by books. If I’m not, I feel kind of like a beaver without a tree to gnaw on—I’m very unhappy,” he says. “I love having books for readers. Most people aren’t going to turn out to be rare book collectors, anyway, let alone have the wherewithal to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a rare, signed first edition.”