Longtime Utah bookseller Sam Weller dies at 88

Obituary » He turned his downtown store into a national treasure, one book at a time.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Sam Weller, the venerable Salt Lake City bookseller known for his energetic personality and an uncanny ability to match a customer to the perfect book, died Tuesday. He was 88.

His death, attributed to causes of age, marks the passing of a literary era for Utah readers as well as for the nation's dwindling community of independent booksellers.

"It's a big ending," said Linda Brummett, manager of the general book department at the Brigham Young University Bookstore . "Sam really became a mentor to me and many other booksellers. In one way or another, we can all trace our heritage as booksellers back to Sam."

Weller is survived by his wife, Lila; son, Tony; daughter-in-law, Catherine; and a granddaughter. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Born in eastern Germany on April 23, 1921, Weller immigrated to the United States with his parents, Gustav (Gus) and Margaret, when he was 4, after the family converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His father worked in a mattress factory and later opened a used-furniture shop to support the family, which ultimately included 12 children. One day in 1929, Gus purchased a large collection of used Mormon books and decided to rename the downtown shop at 14 E. 100 South Zions Bookstore.

Like his siblings, Sam grew up working in the bookstore until he was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving in England and North Africa during World War II. After returning home, he planned to study musical theater at Utah State University. But his strong-willed father persuaded him to take over the deeply indebted bookstore instead.

"That's the remarkable thing about Sam," said daughter-in-law Catherine Weller. "He didn't want to be a bookseller, but he became one of the best bookmen in the nation."

Shortly after he took over in 1946, the store was renamed Sam Weller's Zions Bookstore, to distinguish it from Utah's other "Zion" businesses.

In 1949, Weller was introduced to Lila Nelson. Patient and calm -- and good with numbers -- she was Weller's perfect foil. In 1950, she began working in the store as a bookkeeper. The couple married in 1953 and had one son, Tony.

In those days, Weller was easy to spot, thanks to his fiery red hair and an energetic -- albeit opinionated -- personality. Employees and customers alike say his larger-than-life presence filled the store. But he always put the customers first, grabbing them by the elbow and escorting them to shelf after shelf until he found something they would enjoy.

"He would race around the store 90 miles an hour," remembers Betsy Burton, a former employee who owns The King's English Book Shop in Sugar House. "But I've never known anyone better with a customers. He would do anything for a customer."

That kind of personal attention quickly made Weller and his bookstore -- which moved to its current location at 254 S. Main in 1961 -- a place where everyone from college students to judges and politicians spent their time. Through the years, Weller came to know most of the community's movers and shakers and ultimately became a walking historian of Salt Lake City and Utah culture.

"He knew everybody and knew all the stories that went with them," said Greg Thompson, head of special collections at the University of Utah Marriott Library.

Weller also knew most of the top writers of the 20th century, bringing them to the store for readings and spending time with them over a meal. "It was great fun to get him started talking about the writers from the late '40s and '50s," Thompson said.

Indeed, scores of Utahns recall getting books signed by authors such as Edward Abbey and Larry McMurtry at Weller's.

National book editors and sales representatives valued Weller's knowledge. In one case, they asked him to read a manuscript written by Irving Stone. Weller became an immediate fan of Men to Match My Mountains, and the store ultimately sold some 20,000 copies of the Western novel.

Through the years, the Weller's Bookstore encountered numerous obstacles, from the redevelopment of Salt Lake City's Main Street in the 1970s and '80s to a 1972 fire that decimated the shop. The building was eventually rebuilt, a setback that might have ruined other businesses, but not Weller.

Weller even took on national book chains. He become a plaintiff in a 1980s-era lawsuit against major publishers and chain stores, alleging the chains got special deals that allowed them to discount prices in exchange for promoting certain books. The case was settled, with publishers agreeing to give similar discounts to smaller booksellers.

"He was a straight-up survivor," said attorney Mike Homer, a friend and customer who represented the bookstore in its legal battles. "He was faced with a fight and figured out how to advance."

The store survived, thanks to Weller's passion and foresight, creating a niche operation that offered a large selection of nonfiction books about the West, growing into one of the largest collections of used books west of the Mississippi.

In 1997, Weller was forced to retire after a sudden loss of eyesight; he suffered from declining health in recent years. Tony and Catherine Weller now operate the bookstore and recently announced that they would move it to another location off Main Street. They have yet to find a spot.

Catherine Weller said her father-in-law recognized that it was time for another chapter in the bookstore's history.

"It made him sad," she said, "but he acknowledged that that's what we've got to do to keep the store going. And he appreciated that."


A bookseller's bookseller

"Sam was a huge icon, one that represented the intellectual well being of the community. He developed a bookstore that was known the country over for its new, used and special collections." -- Greg Thompson, head of special collections at the University of Utah Marriott Library

"He had passion for the book business, more than anyone I have ever known. Any passion I have, I owe to him." -- Betsy Burton, owner of The King's English Book Shop

"Sam and I had a love-hate relationship. I always joked that he hired me five times and fired me 10 times. But he was a great bookman. He gave me an interest and a passion for Western and local history, Western exploration and [United States Geological Survey] maps, which is still a passion for me to this day." -- Ken Sanders, Ken Sanders Rare Books

"Sam always found a book for you and it always ended up being a good book." -- Mike Homer, Weller's friend and lawyer

"He knew so much and read so broadly and had such a good judgment about books that every customer that came in wanted his personal assistance. He knew the book." -- Linda Brummett, Brigham Young University Bookstore

A literary life: Sam Weller

Sam Weller was born in eastern Germany in 1921, immigrating to Utah with his family when he was 4.

In 1929, his father launched a downtown bookstore after buying a collection of Mormon books.

Took over his father's bookstore in 1946, renaming it Sam Weller's Zions Bookstore to distinguish it from other Utah business named "Zions."

Married Lila Nelson in 1953.

The bookstore moved to its current location at 254 S. Main St. in 1961.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the business survived a building fire and downtown construction.

In the 1980s, Weller became a plantiff in a lawsuit against major publishers and chain bookstores.

In 1997, Weller's loss of vision caused him to turn store operations over to son Tony and daughter-in-law Catherine Weller.

Died June 23, 2009.