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Ken Sanders Underground grand opening celebration

Veteran SLC bookseller puts the finishing touches on his new home.


Ken Sanders in the new Ken Sanders Underground space at The Leonardo - SCOTT RENSHAW
  • Scott Renshaw
  • Ken Sanders in the new Ken Sanders Underground space at The Leonardo

Approximately 2-1/2 weeks before the scheduled grand opening of Ken Sanders Underground, it feels like there's a lot of work yet to do. A carpenter works loudly in one corner of the basement space at The Leonardo; the entry hallway outside the elevator is bare floor with a stack of carpet squares waiting to be installed. A joke about the way home improvement shows edit for maximum drama to suggest everything was finished at the last second is greeted by Ken Sanders—the veteran Salt Lake City bookseller—with a wry laugh. "I'm afraid we're going to be like that," he says, "only it's not going to be staged."

The ongoing construction is only part of the moving pains Sanders still experiences after nearly three years in his digs at The Leonardo, including arranging parking for his patrons, or even how to turn the lights on when he's there to work outside of The Leonardo's operating hours. "I though there would be only 100 things I'd go in not knowing how to do; it's in the thousands," Sanders says.

Nevertheless, it also feels a bit like the home stretch for a process that began in 2019, when Sanders first turned to The Leonardo as a possible alternative to the retail store on 200 South that Ken Sanders Rare Books has occupied for more than 25 years. There weren't many alternatives in terms of affordable space for a book collection so expansive that Sanders doesn't even know how many volumes it contains. "I have a million dollars' insurance," he says. "It's probably not enough."

The Ken Sanders Underground space allows for an extension of the 1650 square feet of retail space Sanders occupies on The Leonardo's main floor. Sanders will christen it with a grand opening celebration on Sept. 30 that will feature the participation of Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, musician Kate McLeod, poet Alex Caldiero and author Amy Irvine.

The underground space once was the reading room for the former location of the main Salt Lake City Library, so in that sense it feels like Sanders filling it with books again was destined to be. It has, however, been a long process full of bureaucratic red tape—like cutting down 40 of the store's bookcases to meet the city's seismic safety requirements. It's the kind of thing that makes one wonder why the 71-year-old Sanders has devoted so much energy to keeping the store going rather than selling off his collection and retiring.

"It's a fair question," Sanders says. "You have to have money to retire, so I'm told. Do you know you're supposed to plan your retirement decades in advance? Who knew? My riches are in books; I don't worship money. ... If I was sane, I could move into some relatively cheap office situation, and get rid of everything under $1,000 in value. That probably would have been the sane thing to do."

Still, there is something of a sense of mission behind Sanders' determination to keep his operation running. In part, it's a demonstration of commitment to those who showed a commitment to him, when he launched a GoFundMe campaign in 2020 that raised $170,000 to support the store's ongoing operations during the transition period. "I was against doing it," he says, "but I guess part of me thought that it would be ... sort of a litmus test if I should hobble off into the sunset or not. 'If the GFM is a big bomb, then I should follow its advice,' I said to myself. Well, it wasn't, and that money has kept me going the past four years. ... That was and is my mandate. The people have spoken, and I feel like I owe them something other than to just take their money."

Yet he's also honest enough to recognize that he's thinking about his legacy, one that spans nearly 50 years selling books in Salt Lake City, including the old Cosmic Aeroplane store before the venue that now bears his name. "I played cowboy, printer, radical environmentalist—all kinds of things that did not pay money—in my youth," Sanders says. "I wheeled and dealed comic books in high school; I had a mail-order business. ... I'm trying to reinvent myself one last time. I'm clearly not done. I'm simply not finished yet."

"I think this can be a safe haven," he continues, speaking of this new location. "I think we can be a great collaborator; a lot of The Leonardo's and our goals overlap without competing. ... But I want to turn this over. I don't know to whom, but I want it ensconced in this place, I want it to thrive, and I want someone to take it over. Yes, I want the store to continue past me. Yes, there's ego involved in that, of course there is, but is that all there is? I don't think so. I think I've created something here that has value, far beyond me or my name."