Walsh: Weller's bookstore turning a page

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Nothing gets shoppers in the door like a going-out-of-business sale.

Sam Weller's isn't, of course. But it feels like it.

Caught at the intersection of the worst recession since the 1930s and the rise of Amazon, the granddaddy of Salt Lake's independent booksellers will move from its 60-year perch on Main Street. As soon as possible. New location undetermined. Future precarious.

Owner Catherine Weller is surprisingly chipper at the prospect. "It's been a little bit crazy today," she said Monday.

Weller's was bustling -- like any holiday crowd or a regular day at Barnes & Noble. Some of us were there to mourn, to buy too little too late. Some were trolling for bargains (25 percent off used and rare books).

"We realized that we needed to really tighten up operations to continue," says Weller. "We're operating on a model of big, abundant, fabulous selection -- which we love. But not enough bookbuyers love it. We don't have the sales to support this model anymore."

A used furniture dealer, Gus Weller picked up a second-hand library one day and found a family avocation. Weller's used bookstore opened in 1929. Over 20 years, the store moved around downtown three times, finally settling into the David Keith Building in 1948. Gus turned the business over to his son Sam; Sam in turn handed the store to son Tony and his wife, Catherine.

By the time I discovered Weller's in the early 1990s, it was past its prime. Still, the musty smell and trampled industrial carpets were comforting -- sort of like an old library. I wandered the basement stacks on long lunch hours.

To compete with newer, trendier chains, Weller's opened a branch of the Coffee Garden in a cherry wood-lined corner. A branch in Sandy opened and then closed.

"We haven't been profitable for a few years. We've been able to get by. But with the economy, just getting by isn't enough," Catherine Weller says.

Ken Sanders is a competitor; he opened a rare bookstore on 200 East 12 years ago. But he also has memories of wandering Weller's "catacombs" as a teen-ager in the 1960s. He says Weller's closing on Main Street is a "paradigm shift."

"It's the end of an era. It will never be the same again," he says. "There aren't a lot of bookstores like that left in the country -- fewer and fewer."

It's a rare bookstore where you can find stacks of The Jerusalem Quarterly, original editions of Why I Am a Mormon faded to salmon pink, Campbell's Cooking with Soup and Dr. Laura Schlessinger's children's book, But I Waannt It!

"When are you moving?," a man from American Towers asks the clerk. "We're going to miss you."

At the risk of this turning into a premature wake, the Wellers announced the move last week. They don't need 38 employees and 30,000 square feet anymore. As soon as they sell their share of the Keith building, they will close. But finding something smaller to buy downtown has been difficult. They are determined to own their own building to avoid fickle landlords.

"We want to continue to be booksellers," she says.

I hauled a pile of guilt books to the car Monday. I've ordered two more.