When one thinks of Salt Lake City, two things usually come to mind: skiing and Mormons. But while Salt Lake City can boast of world-class ski resorts (the 2002 Winter Olympics were there after all; a fact that they are still proud of), and while it is the headquarters of the Mormon Church, Salt Lake City is also more than that. It is home to a world-class arts scene -- including ballet, symphony, museums, and the Sundance Film Festival, the Utah Jazz (if you're into basketball), beautiful canyons for hiking and camping, and a plethora of fine dining experiences. So it's not surprising that in Salt Lake City I found two of the best independent bookstores that I've ever been in.
I first came across Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore (informally known just as "Sam Weller's") during college. If you were a serious bibliophile in Utah, then you had to know of Sam Weller's; it was the best place to get books. Since I was 45 minutes (by car) away in Provo, though, I didn't get to the store much, but I did longingly wander through the stacks on the rare occasions I was up in Salt Lake. Conveniently located on Main Street in downtown Salt Lake, it looks relatively unimposing upon first glance (in fact, my husband drove right by it a couple of times before we found, completely by chance, the alleyway that leads to the back entrance). Another busy urban store, perhaps, nothing special. But walk inside, and you are confronted with towers of books. Sam Weller's not only carries recent releases, but specializes in used and rare books, particularly Mormon and Utah history books. Still, Sam Weller's--a family-owned business since 1925--prides itself in being able to find just about anything for just about anyone. (For a more extended, and quite fascinating, store history, see here.) I dropped in for a look on a Friday afternoon while on vacation recently. I couldn't stay long -- sleeping kids in the car -- but I did stay long enough to wish that I had more time. I was greeted by a friendly staff member (which is saying a lot, since I came in the back door), and I spent the precious minutes I had looking through the stacks. I didn't get through a hundredth of it, and if I had the time, I could have spent all afternoon there.
The only downside of Sam Weller's, in my opinion, is that there wasn't enough comfy places to sit and browse. It seemed like a place where you'd go, get what you need, and leave. It wasn't quite inviting enough for me. Still, it's a staple in downtown Salt Lake, and worth the visit.
While The King's English, the other independent bookstore in the Salt Lake City area, isn't located downtown, it's well worth the drive. Located in the Sugarhouse area (a neighborhood on the hills of eastern Salt Lake) since 1977, it's a bit off the beaten path for the average tourist. Situated in a lovely little strip-mall -ish area, for lack of a better word (it looked like a bit of bohemia in an older suburb, surrounded by coffee shops and art stores), and in an old house rather than a box store, it oozes charm. My girls were thrilled when we drove up ("We get to go inside, Mom?!"), and made a beeline to the fabulous children's section. I didn't see them again until we were dragging them out so we could make it to our next event on time. Which was fine, since I was lost in the seemingly endless (well, eight) rooms stacked with books. I liked how they organized the books: there was a mystery room, a nature/history room, a fiction room, a Western author's room... it made browsing more interesting. And there were many inviting comfy chairs (children-sized ones in the children's room), for sitting and reading. The staff were extraordinarily nice people, more than happy to help us find what we need as well as gift wrap our purchases. My only regrets were that I hadn't discovered it before this visit, and that I was only visiting and wasn't able to be a frequent customer there.
The other thing that impressed me while in Salt Lake was the local first movement. Everywhere I looked, especially wandering through downtown, there were "Buy Local First Utah" stickers, encouraging consumers to buy the local product and to patronize the local store first. I think that's a terrific idea, and well worth imitating in other areas.