- Peter Holslin
Saturday, June 29, was ostensibly the last day of operations for Eborn Books' flagship downtown Salt Lake City location. That morning, a truck hauled away 500 boxes of hardbacks and paperbacks from the 40,000-square-foot space, located on Main Street in the historic David Keith Building, where City Weekly also has its offices.
While the sheer number of boxes sounds imposing, the place still managed to overflow with product on Saturday afternoon.
Up until the last minute, owners Bret and Cindy Eborn were selling stock at half price. Dozens of customers were taking the plunge into a multi-level maze piled with books, books and more books—Western literary classics, rare Mormon texts, studies on Freemasonry, sci-fi pulps, Harlequin romances, anthologies of military history and oddball how-to guides with titles like How to Hide Anything and Shut Up, Stop Whining & Get a Life.
"It's kind of like a big treasure hunt in here," Bret Eborn says surrounded by literary stockpiles. Per his estimation, inventory on closing day included an approximate 1 million books.
Eborn, who launched the eponymous outlet in 1989 and has been at the Main Street location since 2012, had to close up shop after receiving an eviction notice from the landlord, Holladay mayor Rob Dahle. Most of the building's tenants (including the Weekly) have to move out because Dahle is planning a major renovation for the building.
Loyal customers were instantly upset, but Eborn made his peace with the move. He still has locations in Provo, Ogden, Layton and even Nauvoo, Ill., while 70% of his business consists of online sales.
"I feel like it's Salt Lake's loss. It's a piece of downtown that's not going to be here anymore," he says. "But for me and my wife personally, we're fine ... we're still going to sell books."
The locale has been a bookstore under different owners for nearly 60 years. Before the Eborns moved in, it was the home of Sam Weller's Books—the namesake of World War II veteran and beloved downtown businessman Sam Weller. Later, the space was taken over by Weller's son Tony, who alongside his wife, Catherine, now owns and operates Weller Book Works in Trolley Square.
Tony Weller was born in 1962, a year after his dad moved into the downtown digs. The younger Weller says he spent untold hours of his youth hanging out with the lovable "freaks" who worked there, all while learning the ropes of the book business. He can't imagine how he would've turned out, had he not been raised by booksellers.
"To the degree that we read, we can actually select our influences from the greatest thinkers of history," Weller explains. (His father died in 2009 at the age of 88.) "Here I am—Utah guy—yet because of a bookstore, I abandoned the Mormonism of my youth for Zen Buddhism, even though I did not have Japanese or Chinese parents. Nobody in my schools taught me about it. I found it in a bookstore."
Other Salt Lake bookstore owners say the history of this bookworm's sanctuary could fill a leather-bound tome.
- Peter Holslin
"For me, it was nirvana," Ken Sanders of Ken Sanders Rare Books muses. He was a regular at Sam Weller's from the 1960s onward, and thinks back fondly to the day he helped the impassioned bookstore patron unload a semi-truck trailer's worth of books published by the United States Geological Survey, carting in tens of thousands of scientific studies one hand-truck at a time.
"I even had to build the shelves that they went on," Sanders recalls. "To me, going into Weller's, it was a magical experience. It was an endless amount of books. You could just find anything there."
When Eborn Books set up shop, it brought new generations of dedicated patrons with it. Bret Eborn says one customer met her future husband at Coffee Garden, the adjoining café. He later proposed to her amid the bookshelves.
"There's people who filmed small scenes for films and movies [in the shop]. Even a Hallmark movie did a scene in there," Eborn recalls. "Whenever somebody says, 'Can I film? Can I take pictures?' we always say, 'Go ahead.'"
"I'm sad to see the store go for Salt Lake, but it's going to be nice he doesn't have to do 6-13's anymore," Cindy adds, referring to her husband's often grueling work schedule—13 hours a day, six days a week.
Like all independent bookstores, the one at 245 S. Main has faced many challenges. A fire in the early '70s compelled the elder Weller to buy an ownership stake in the David Keith Building. In the 1980s, retailers across downtown lost business to ZCMI Center Mall and Crossroads Plaza, dueling shopping centers located just up the street from Sam Weller's, where City Creek Center now stands.
The book retail business experienced a convulsive boom and bust in the 1990s, according to a 1999 report by Richard Howorth of the American Booksellers Association. Earlier that decade, sales from independently owned bookstores made up more than a third of book sales in the country. The number of books being published was on the rise, and publishing houses were reaping healthy profits. Then retail giants Barnes & Noble and Borders swept into prominence, leading to a glut of unsold books and an industry-wide slump.
Amazon—touting itself as the "Earth's Biggest Bookstore" when it launched in 1995—dealt a major blow to the big retail chains as it cornered the online book sales market. Borders went bankrupt in 2011 and last month, Barnes & Noble announced it was being sold to a hedge fund for $638 million after closing dozens of locations and enduring years of corporate turmoil.
After facing declining sales and the loss of retail neighbors, the Wellers closed up their Main Street shop on Christmas Eve 2011—leaving some of the inventory behind for Eborn. Tony Weller thinks back to the fateful night with a "strange gumbo of emotions."
"When you're in retail, the day before Christmas has a certain darkness at the end of the day. It gets kind of quiet in the afternoon, and the last people you meet are the desperate procrastinators," he says. "You feel kind of sorry for them, because they're the people who are shopping alone, and they only have an hour, and they still haven't done something for this person in their life. You can feel their angst."
Today, business can be mixed for bookshop owners—though profit margins remain slim, many retailers find success by diversifying their merchandise and hosting local events. The American Booksellers Association recently announced that 99 new indie bookstores with ABA membership opened up in 2018, a 32% increase from the year before.
"The news of our demise is greatly overrated," Anne Holman, co-owner of The King's English Bookshop, says. "There are bookstores closing, but there are lots of bookstores opening."
While the ink is dry for Eborn Books, their story has not yet reached a climactic ending. Bret Eborn says 2018 was his most successful business year yet. He's still got so many books at the downtown shop that he plans to keep opening up every Saturday until the inventory's all moved away to a warehouse in Tooele.
As Eborn moves on and grows his homegrown chain's online retail arm, he still emphasizes that nothing can quite replace the charm of the old-fashioned, brick-and-mortar bookshop.
"Even though a lot of people have gone to their electronic devices, there are those who just want the smell of the book, the feel of the book," he says. "You can't do online what you can do in here—come in and look around and discover things you didn't know existed."