Lives Lived by the Book

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By Joann Jacobsen-Wells

As a boy, Tony Weller assumed the staff of his father's downtown Salt Lake City bookstore -- an eclectic bunch of bibliophiles who were the denizens of the book-shelved forests he explored -- were just normal folk. You know -- well read. Articulate. Each an expert in some literary endeavor, each an evangelist for the glory of the written word. "It was not until I was in college that I recognized what a peculiar bunch of lovable weirdos and oddballs had been around me my entire life," Weller said.

Today, having taken over from his father, Tony owns Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore. But many of those same employees remain, some having served three decades -- twice as long as Edgar Allan Poe's career as a classic American writer and poet. Three employees, including owner Tony, have been at the store for 30 years; one, 36 years. The tenure of six others is 12 - 25 years.

"We have better stability than most retails for several reasons, including the fact that books are a real labor of love," said Weller. "We don't earn any more than other people in the retail sector, but it requires a lot more to sell books."

Still, once someone has made peace with the moderate income the business offers, bookselling becomes both a business and a life's calling. Weller says that for him, there are few more attractive businesses than that of proliferating books in an age of high technology. "Unlike television, it takes a depth of focus and commitment of time to read a book," he continued. "But the rewards are great. The deepest and most profound aspects of the human spirit are found in books."

Weller's is a third-generation bookstore, opened in 1929 -- the same year the stock market crashed leading to the Great Depression -- by Gus Weller, a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from eastern Germany. Gus named the business "Zion's Book Store," a play on the church's designation of Utah as a modern version of the blessed biblical land of Zion.

Sam Weller, Gus' son, took over the store in 1946, and in the '60s his name was added to the title. It became "Sam Weller's Zion Book Store."

Sam's only child, Tony, began his apprenticeship at age 10 to earn money for a new bike. By 1997, he had become owner of the family business where employees are treated, well -- like family. "Because it is a family owned business, the staff tends to be treated a little differently than if it were a corporate entity," said Weller, whose wife, Catherine, also works at the store. "The levels of intimacy here are pretty high . . . because of the family orientation and the love of books. I have often thought that book people are unique because books send your spirits off into new realms," he added.

A 29-year employee, Joan Nay, agrees. "I can walk in here every day and know I will see something new, or something old and rare, that I have never seen before," she said. "I could work here for a million years and still be entertained."

For Nay, it is the thrill of holding a rare tome that keeps her from sending her resume elsewhere. She treasures having leafed through a copy of the Oregon Trail, in which Charles Russell did 11 original water color illustrations, and the time she explored a copy of Gone With the Wind that contained a self-deprecating letter from Margaret Mitchell, in which the author said her book wasn't that good and that she was unlikely to write another. Gone With the Wind won the Pulitzer in 1937, but Mitchell never did publish another book.

Special to Lay's heart, however, was the task of compiling a complete set of first edition Book of Mormons in multiple languages. "It took us about 15 years to put it together. It was like my child," said Nay, who, like Weller, views her colleagues as "a family -- a dysfunctional family, but a family."

At Weller's, family traditions do not die. "Even though I am a baby boomer ... I have adopted many of my parents' depression-era ideals and, like my parents, have always paid myself proportionately with my work," Weller said. "The Wellers have never taken dividends out of the business. We work for a wage -- a paycheck that is proportionate with our labor. It has little bearing on our ownership."

According to Weller, some employees earned more money than did his father or mother, Lila, and today he is not the highest-paid person in the store. "I think it is fair to say that we have spread the earnings of the business more equitably from the top to the bottom," he said. "While we have a big, nice-looking book store here, we are certainly not taking a lot of the money home," Weller added. "We are taking as little as we can afford, which enables us to pay a little more to some of the workers -- which helps us to keep them."

Employees also receive paid vacation and sick leave, bus passes, discounts on books, and the pleasure of working with some fairly unique people, like Wallace Stegner, Fawn Brodie, Pearl Baker -- a few of the literary celebrities LaRae Sorensen relished meeting during her 30-year stint at Weller's. Sorensen was running the popcorn machine at the old Woolworth's, across the street from Weller's, when Sam Weller convinced her to come to work for him. She met her husband, Mark Sorensen, at the store, and each week, the couple take Sam and Lila to lunch. Leaving Weller's is unthinkable to Sorensen because "there is the challenge of new information for your mind everyday."

That stability is what Tony Weller focuses on when hiring: stability, knowledge, and humility. "There are a lot of smart people -- well-educated people who make crummy booksellers because of their inability to confront their own ignorance," Weller said. "People who cannot admit they don't know things do not belong in the book business. When I hire a person, I look for humility as much as knowledge."

Bruce Christensen, who sees books "as more than commodities to be sold," fits the profile. His most memorable moment in 24 years at Weller's was the day a mother brought her young son into the store to buy a book on which he would do a report. The problem the mother faced was that her child hated to read.

Christensen recommended the boy read A Day No Pigs Would Die, by Robert Peck. "She [the mother] came back in later and said he read it within three hours. He wouldn't even stop to eat," said Christensen. "When you can have an influence on people's lives like that...."

This piece was originally published in the Salt Lake Tribune. Reprinted with permission of the author.