It was 1929 and Gus Weller, a recent German immigrant and the owner of the secondhand shop Salt Lake Bedding, Furniture and Radio on 100 South, found himself in possession of a large collection of books.
“As the story goes, one day, he went to buy some old stuff,” said Tony Weller, Gus Weller’s grandson. “And this house he went to had a phenomenal collection of LDS books. My grandfather was a convert to Mormonism, and he was a very, very dedicated man. He bought those books, and … that collection that convinced him turn his little shop into a bookstore.”
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It was a decision that would change his life, and in time, shape the lives of his family members for the next 90 years and counting. As Weller Book Works celebrates its 90th anniversary — a millennium in bookstore years — on Aug. 17, its owners Tony and Catherine Weller look back on their bookstore’s history, how the store is doing now and their plans for its future.
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The early years of Gus Weller’s shop, then-called Zion’s Bookstore, were tough. He opened in the year of the Wall Street crash, running a small business through the Depression and doing his best earn enough for his and his wife Margaret’s 11 children. As World War II came to a close and his son Sam returned from overseas service, Gus Weller decided that his son was the help he was looking for, even if initially, Sam Weller had other ideas.
”(Sam) came back from the war and he thought he was going to get into theater. He liked to sing and dance,” his son Tony Weller said. “No one of the family had the money to go to college, but the GI Bill provided my veteran father with the college tuition, but his father had better plans for him than song and dance.”
Sam Weller — who Tony described as “hyperactive (and) charismatic” — was just what the struggling bookstore needed. He expanded the inventory, adding secular fiction and nonfiction books alongside his father’s collection of books about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For his first few years, Sam Weller slept at the store, showering at the local Deseret Gym, all the time working to help his bookshop grow. But for all of his relentless energy, Sam Weller needed organizational help.
Luckily for him, he fell in love with a woman who was an organization pro.
Sam Weller met Lila Nelson at the bookshop through a mutual friend. At the time, Nelson worked as an assistant to then-Deseret News managing editor Theron Liddle, and after Sam and Lila got married, she brought her mathematic, analytical brain to her new husband’s store.
”She really became the kind of organizer in the bookstore,” Tony Weller recalled. “My dad was more that energetic front man. … My mother was quiet, analytical, organized and together.”
Lila Weller, who at 103 still comes into the bookstore on a regular basis, created a system for tracking and cataloguing that became famous among booksellers throughout the West. In those pre-computer days, her system allowed the bookstore to monitor how long new books sat on the shelves and how many copies they sold.
”The brilliance (of her system was) being able to track (the books) in such detail, not just that you sold (a) book,” Catherine Weller said. It’s important for booksellers to know exactly when they ordered a book and exactly when it sold, rather than, as Catherine put it, going “by your memory and saying, ‘Oh, I ordered that sometime this year, so I’ll get a couple more.’”
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Taking up two full floors plus a balcony, the bookstore housed new books on the main floor and used books downstairs, a mysterious and musty maze of bookshelves punctuated by, oddly, mirrored pillars.
”We moved into an area that had once been a dance hall,” Tony Weller said. “Why would we take (the mirrors) down? They were cool.”
These were busy years for Tony Weller’s parents. In addition to running the bookstore, Sam Weller was the president of the American Booksellers Association, and in 1969, on Lila Weller’s suggestion, changed the store’s name to Sam Weller’s Zion Bookstore. But in 1972, the book store caught fire. It was an event that taught Tony Weller two important things about his father.
”One, that he was a mortal,” Tony Weller said. “Until that time, I thought he was the toughest man I’d ever met who could overcome any problem, but that’s the time I saw him cry first. The other thing was that he was nearly a god.”
”He was going into building while it was burning,” Catherine Weller said. “And he did until the fire department told him it was too dangerous.”
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The fire nearly destroyed the business, Tony Weller recalled, but his father pushed to rebuild and in time, got the bookshop back on its feet. One of Sam Weller’s many gifts as a business owner was his involvement and leadership in the local community and reading communities, earning the title “The Mayor of Main Street” and forming, along with Lila and other local bookstores, the Intermountain Booksellers Association.
But the next couple of decades became increasingly difficult for a business on Main Street. As Salt Lake’s downtown district went through various transitions, from the Beautification Program in 1974 that cut parking, to the construction of the ZCMI and Crossroads Plaza Malls down the street, many Main Street businesses struggled to stay alive. Sam Weller’s Zion Bookstore, as one of the largest bookstores in the Western United States, continued to attract readers while many other local business folded or moved, but a new threat — and opportunity — was coming, and it had nothing to with parking spots or shopping centers.
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”When I was a kid, … I was meeting 20-year-olds or 30-year-olds who were some of the brightest people in their generation,” he recalled. “So this kind of got me into the book business, because … I realized that I needed to stay here if I wanted to work with that caliber of people.”
It helped, too, that Tony Weller’s librarian girlfriend — the woman who became his wife — shared his passion for books and book people, and, like her new mother-in-law, was excited to work in her new husband’s family bookstore. ”When I came in to the bookstore, I came in as a bookseller,” Catherine Weller said.
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”I think … that people can feel overwhelmed,” Tony Weller said. “They actually like a little bit of help. In a store that’s a little smaller, if you gain the reputation of being smart book pickers by virtue of what you haven’t chosen, people say, ‘It’s a good book or they wouldn’t have chosen it.’”
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[I]t was the elder Lila Weller who perhaps summed up the Weller family’s dedication to books best. When asked why she still came in to Weller Book Works at age 103, she answered, “Well, I wouldn’t wouldn’t want to (quit). I mean, if somebody said ‘You can never touch another book in your life,’ that would be terrible.”