One reporter, a documentary filmmaker and no customers greeted Tony Weller on Friday morning at the main entrance of his bookstore's new Trolley Square location for its grand opening.
It wasn't the most auspicious opening note for one of Salt Lake City's oldest independently owned small businesses. But it is the promise of great expectations over time, as opposed to brash beginnings, that Weller said moved him to relocate the store his grandfather Gustav founded on 100 South in 1929.
Scant morning crowds, it turns out, are part of the long-term plan. With Sam Weller's Books' old location on Main Street, which the store maintained for 50 years, the shopping crowd ran from late morning until lunch.
For the freshly named, remarketed Weller Book Works, it's hoped that free parking, plus the ready-to-shop dynamism bred by Trolley Square's existing tenants, will see the independent bookstore through many more years to come with crowds ready to shop during the evening. With the digital onslaught of e-books, online merchants and retail experts have long warned that independent booksellers face an uphill battle. Weller, along with co-owner and wife Catherine, say they are confident their business can weather the storm to come.
"We wouldn't be here if we didn't believe we could do it," Catherine Weller said. "People are beginning to reconnect with local businesses in ways that will benefit everyone. We've got a smaller space, and smaller inventory as a result of the move. That makes us more nimble. No longer is it like trying to turn the Queen Mary around."
Friday events celebrating the fifth move in the store's history culminated with balloons, locally baked pastries and a commemorative speech from Tony Weller.
"You don't have much room for emotion. Getting the job done is enough," Weller said on Friday morning. "As happy as we are with what we've achieved, we've got much more to accomplish here. We're still an independent bookstore in a world dominated by corporations."
The business plans to offer titles for sale to downloadable e-readers, via an affiliate partnership with Google, Catherine Weller said. Once all its books are accounted for after the laborious move, Weller Book Works will also resume selling books online. For now, however, the Wellers' enduring faith in books as physical entities remains the spine from which its core business will stand. "It's the body and soul of books coming together," Tony Weller said.
The store's new space is filled with natural light and firm concrete floors, something of an aesthetic departure from the store's old Main Street digs, where carpet and fluorescent light predominated. Similar to the old location, however, the new digs also boast high ceilings and a mezzanine for rare books. A potential restaurant space near the south wall is available for the store to sub-let, hopefully to a restaurant flexible enough to offer coffee and pastries at morning, with tappas and wine come evening, Weller said.
On Friday morning about 30 minutes after the store opened, John Hedberg, a biochemistry student at the University of Utah, said the new space felt like something between a library and a museum.
"It's open. It's airy. And it's still pretty close to TRAX, which is how I got here," Hedberg said. "It has that old-book smell of paper and glue full of great memories."
The marketing campaign announcing the store's new name and location was every bit as renegade as the spirit of independent book-selling removed from big-box, corporate ethos.
Weller teamed with Salt Lake City's Super Top Secret design and advertising firm to launch a "book drop" of 878 free titles throughout high-traffic city locations, such as bus stops and shopping districts, as a prelude to the store's grand opening.
The campaign was a nod to the free bicycles of inner-city Amsterdam, which anyone can ride and return for someone else to use, said Jaren Strain, a partner at the firm. Doing the same for books spoke not only to the role of books as physical objects, but also reading as public good.
Employees from both Weller Book Works and the advertising firm broke into teams to distribute the books. All were enclosed in jackets that announce the store's new name and location using vintage art, and a series of spirited slogans that celebrate reading and independent thought, such as "A book is the best tool to sharpen a dull mind."
"Tony was something of a street performer in college, so he loved the idea of something less ordinary," Strain said. "He was instrumental in paring them down. His favorite was probably 'Don't take candy or anything else from corporate strangers!' "
Weller Book Works
Where • 665 E. 600 South, Trolley Square, Salt Lake City
Info • Call 801-328-2586 or visit www.wellerbookworks.com for more information.