BACKGROUND: WELLER BOOK WORKS
Tony Weller started working in his parents’ bookstore when he was 10 years old and wanted a new bike. It was 1972, and there was a lot of work for a new delivery boy: that year a four-alarm fire burned all night on Main Street in Salt Lake City, severely damaging the bookstore and many other businesses. Tony’s father Sam rushed back in, rescuing as many books as he could until the firemen forced him to stop. Determined to save the business that his father, German immigrant Gustav Weller, had started in 1929, Sam noticed an empty storefront on the way home. The bookstore opened temporarily in that space with a fire sale on the salvaged books. Months later, Sam moved back and re-opened the bookstore—newly expanded into areas vacated by the fire.
Tony slowly moved up the ranks from delivery boy to bookseller, bookkeeper, appraiser, manager, and eventually, owner. “I expected I would sell books from our Main Street location for the rest of my life,” he says. But South Main Street’s heyday as a retail center was long past, and book industry changes had turned the store’s enormous size (30,000 square feet)—once its biggest asset—into a liability. “The last 10 years have been a huge shakeup. … We’re a close-knit industry despite the fact that we’re competitors, and to see stores go out of business is hard—it’s really hard,” says Catherine Weller, Tony's wife, holding back tears. She left her career as a University of Utah librarian to join the family business in 1994.
“One of the major issues with that store—aside from the size, which isn’t sustainable in a city of this size and density, really—was parking, and the lack of willingness of people to use mass transit, or to go downtown and shop on Main Street,” Catherine claims. "There were people in the industry who urged Tony and me to not move the store, to simply close it," she says. "We had to move or die. It was a risk to come here, but it was the right risk to take for us."
After years of planning, Sam Weller’s Books on Main Street closed on Christmas Eve, 2011. It reopened as Weller Book Works on Epiphany, 2012, in the Trolley Square redevelopment downtown. “It was important to us to acknowledge the legacy of 80 years of bookselling history,” Catherine says of new floorplan. “But, at the same time, we were able to work on trying to design a store that would flow. One of the things we really have loved is the metaphor of physical bookstore for the journey that a person has when they take a book. It’s an exploration, so we tried to keep that sense of exploration, that sense of opening and moving forward,” she adds. “We still believe that the beauty of the printed word is how broad it is, how it really can show you new things. … We want people to come in here and find what they’re not looking for.”