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[BKARTS] Ken Sanders' incredible adventures in the rare-book trade.
Book 'em Ken!
Ken Sanders' incredible adventures in the rare-book trade.
by Ann Poore
Ken Sanders has a multitude of friends, most of them long dead and on
a shelf at his funky Salt Lake City bookstore.
He has enemies, too, the kind who call and make death threats. As
chair of the security committee for the Antiquarian Booksellers
Association of America (ABAA), Sanders knows the once genteel rare-
book business has fallen prey to Internet fraud, credit card theft
and e-auction forgeries. Even international cartels, not content to
limit their business to arms and oil, drugs and extortion, have
discovered that rare books are portable, can be moved quickly across
several time zones, fetch huge sums from collectors and can be
liquidated swiftly, when necessary, through an Internet auction site
such as eBay. The kinder, gentler days of the book trade, where deals
were sealed simply with a handshake, seem over.
It was Sanders? daughter, Melissa, who first heard the threatening
message left on the bookstore?s answering machine March 2003.
Recorded shortly after 4 in the morning, a heavily accented voice
said: ?Ken Sanders ... this is David ... you may know me as David
Holt ... I am very much looking forward to coming to Salt Lake City
and cutting off your balls ... Goodbye now ...?
Melissa knew David George Holt was a convicted felon with a number of
aliases whom her father had been chasing ?forever,? as she put it.
?He did time for securities fraud, then started defrauding
booksellers,? she said. ?He offers something scarce at a really good
price,? Melissa explained. ?Then he has the buyer wire 15 percent of
the price to an associate in Russia. The book, of course, never
arrives,? she said. Sanders had just unmasked Holt twice in quick
succession, blocking his efforts to bilk book dealers. It seemed Holt
intended to retaliate.
Sanders quickly replied by e-mail to one of Holt?s known aliases
(Frederick Buwe, supposedly a retired antique dealer from Lugano,
?I told Dave there was no need for him to come all this way. If he?d
simply tell me where in the world he was, I would pay him a visit,?
?Dad,? Melissa once told a reporter for Maisonneuve Magazine, ?is a
volatile man.? And the rare-book world, far from a stodgy enterprise
for those who like the quiet life, is filled with a surprising amount
of intrigue and skullduggery. If, that is, you?re as close to the
action as Sanders. He and his daughter were aware that there had been
a scare in the New York book world several days before. Svetlana
Aronov, an ABAA member and dealer in high-end Russian books, vanished
off a busy midtown Manhattan street in broad daylight while walking
her father?s cocker spaniel. Sanders believed a connection existed
between Holt and Aronov and had shared his suspicions with the FBI.
Based on the taped threat, Holt clearly wasn?t happy about Sanders?
The New York Times reported: ?In a city where bizarre is almost
without meaning, the case of Ms. Aronov, 44, ranks among New York?s
most improbable vanishings, with echoes of Judge Crater ? A police
bloodhound traced the scent of the dog to 68th Street and York
Avenue, where it ended.? The article said there were rumors the
Russian mob might be involved. Holt, using numerous aliases, had been
defrauding booksellers since the mid-?90s and Sanders wasn?t the only
person who thought he might be connected with Aronov?s disappearance.
Aronov?s husband and daughter visited the New York Book Fair to thank
Sanders for his attempts to find out what had happened.
Weeks later, on May 7, 2003, New York Newsday ran a story headlined:
?Identity of Missing Woman Confirmed: Body found in river is that of
rare-book dealer.? The story reported, as only Newsday can, that
?Aranov?s body surfaced in the East River yesterday afternoon in
front of more than 100 diners at a popular Long Island City
restaurant.? It also said the decomposed body of a small dog had been
recovered in Queens earlier that week.
The case remains unsolved and police have named no suspects.
THE GREAT AND WILD MAN
John Dunning, Nero Wolfe Award-winning author (Booked to Die; The
Bookman?s Wake; The Bookman?s Promise) and an expert on rare and
collectible books, said of Sanders via e-mail: ?Ken is the great wild
man of the book trade. Emphasis here should be on ?great,? because as
the ABAA book detective, he weeds out the bad apples who fabricate
signatures, sell later printings as firsts, and then try to
intimidate him into shutting up about it. He has become indispensable
in his tenure as security chair and, I kid you not, anybody who
follows him will have damn big shoes to fill.?
?Wild man? is appropriate, as well. Sanders can be described as a
little bit Porter Rockwell, a little bit ZZ Top. Writing about the
New York Antiquarian Book Fair on Park Avenue for Canada?s
Maisonneuve Magazine, Jamie Adame observed: ?Ken Sanders mingles
happily with the crowd, if not inconspicuously. His bushy beard,
which stretches to his chest, sets him apart from his rather staid-
seeming colleagues; and though he is balding, remnants of the 52-year-
old?s mostly grey hair are pulled back in a short ponytail. Still,
Sanders, proprietor of a bookstore in Salt Lake City that specializes
in Edward Abbey and the literary West, manages to engage his fellow
bibliophiles. The rare book world, after all, is where Sanders has
spent his life since he began collecting as a teenager.?
In actuality, he was dealing comic books in grade school. ?That?s
really how it all started,? Sanders admitted. He remembers buying his
first Spider-Man comic book at a drugstore on State Street. ?I got
Amazing Fantasy # 15 for 12 cents. It?s a $50,000 comic book now?not
that I still have it,? he said.
When his mother gave him a dollar for a haircut, Sanders would walk
all the way to 3300 South ?because there was a barbershop that just
charged 75 cents? to cut his hair.
?I?d take the quarter and go across to Utah Drug. Comic books were a
dime then. I?d get two comic books and some red licorice or, if I had
an extra bit of change, I?d get three comic books and no licorice,?
He quickly learned that not all grocery stores carried the same
comics. ?I found a little store run by a Chinese family called the
Mayfair Market on 7th East and 27th South,? he said. ?This family
held on to back issues, so you could find, by digging a ways, comics
that were a year old. And you could sell them for 25 cents or even 50
cents. Because nobody had them, and everybody wanted Spider-Man and
The Fantastic Four and The Incredible Hulk and X-Men. So I was horse-
trading and buying and selling comic books at Woodrow Wilson
Elementary,? Sanders said. And thus a bookman was born.
Sanders was the type of kid who read under the covers with a
flashlight. ?Read at the table, whistle in bed; the devil will get
you before you?re dead,? his mother told him nearly every day. He
scrounged deposits on soda pop bottles to buy big boxes of
Scholastic?s Arrow books at school: Miss Pickeral Goes to Mars, Danny
Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint and his all-time favorite from that
period, The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek. ?It?s why there?s a
stegosaurus painted on the stained-glass windows in the front of my
book shop today,? Sanders said with a grin.
?My father never made much money, but he always did what he damn well
pleased,? Sanders observed. ?He collected fish, rocks, Utah
memorabilia. Our garage was a lapidary shop until he started the
trophy shop there. Our back yard was like a salvage yard. I grew up
thinking everyone had 24 fish tanks going in their house. Then my
parents bought a building on Vidas Avenue and State that became Stan
Sanders Priced-Rite Trophy Shop?with the corniest slogan in the
universe: ?Stan the trophy man says you can?t beat our deal even if
you steal.? That always made me wince, even as a kid,? he said, and
smiled. ?Books were the only thing my father never collected. Maybe
that?s why I do.?
THE INTREPID BIBLIO-DETECTIVE
Inherent in the rare-book world that Sanders occupies is the thrill
of discovery and the excitement of a good chase. It?s an element
that?s stretched all the way from his comic book hunting days as a
child in Salt Lake City to his international Cyber-sleuthing to
thwart the efforts of book thieves and dastardly forgers.
Through it all, Sanders? intrepid attitude rarely falters. He thought
nothing of taking along half a million dollars worth of rare Mormon
books to a recent book fair in New York City. And he?s run the white
waters of the Canyonlands with the late nature writer and novelist
Edward Abbey under circumstances that would terrify most people.
?Probably the shortest description I have of Ken is that he can?t
swim because he is terribly afraid of water, and yet he?s rowed the
Green River and Colorado a number of times,? said local writer,
photographer and NPR correspondent Scott Carrier.
Then again, a man who returns the phone call of someone threatening
castration would probably have little problem entering a river
without knowing how to tread water.
Though frustrated in his efforts to stop Holt?s fraudulent
activities, Sanders has had his share of successes, too. Last year,
he helped the San Jose High Tech Crime Unit nab John Charles Gilkey,
now serving a 3-year sentence at San Quentin Prison in California for
felony book theft.
Gilkey was a rogue collector who stole books to feed his collecting
habit. He had acquired a string of credit card numbers and would call
a book dealer, talk knowingly about a $5,000-$10,000 first edition
and offer ?his? card in payment. Often, he would call back to say his
nephew or father just happened to be in town and would be in to pick
up the book. Months later, the book dealer would receive a charge-
back on the sale, since a stolen card was used, but by that time the
then-unknown thief would be long gone with the book.
Sanders was able to discern a pattern of similar thefts across the
country and was the first to determine that they were by the same
person. With the cooperation of Detective Kenneth Munson of the San
Jose Police, a sting operation was set up, and a fake first edition
of Steinbeck?s The Grapes of Wrath overnighted to an address that
turned out to be a hotel. The man who collected the package was
arrested and identified as Gilkey. Later, due in court and lacking
funds to pay a lawyer, he attempted to sell several first-edition
books in the Winnie-the-Pooh series worth between $5,000 and $7,500.
Gilkey left the books for appraisal and, for the first time, left his
real address, on Treasure Island between Oakland and San Francisco.
Sanders had been following Gilkey?s movements all day through
Internet and telephone contact with the various shops to which he
took the Pooh books. Sanders fed the Treasure Island address to
Munson, who obtained a search warrant and raided the home. Sanders
directed Munson by telephone to the various rare first editions he
suspected Gilkey would have, including On the Road by Jack Kerouac, a
signed limited-edition Samuel Beckett (both worth thousands of
dollars) and two dozen other stolen books. A year later, Gilkey is in
prison and Sanders is arranging for the books to be returned since
they are no longer needed as evidence.
Sanders also used Cyberspace to follow the trail of a stolen
collection containing Gen. George Armstrong Custer?s family photo
album, circa 1862, and 72 original photographs of Gen. William
Tecumseh Sherman. The thief called a Beverly Hills photography dealer
and arranged to bring in the rare and valuable collection for
appraisal. The dealer notified Sanders, who convinced police to go
immediately to the store where they arrested the thief. With Gen.
Custer?s family photo album safe, Sanders could return to his normal
business of hunting down rare books for his law-abiding customers.
THE ROAD TO ZION
Sanders landed his first job in the book trade at the age of 14, but
it was a long, winding path to his current bookstore in downtown Salt
Lake City. He worked Saturdays and after school at Central Book
Exchange in Sugar House. Meanwhile, he was attending Granite High
School, sort of.
?Those were the three most miserable years of my life. All I did was
sit in the hallway or the back of the classroom and read my own
books. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau, John Burroughs, Emily Dickinson.
They graduated me with a D- average just to get rid of me,? Sanders
On a family trip (the Disneyland?Knott?s Berry Farm run) he recalls
begging his grandfather to take him to Bertrand Smith?s Acres of
Books in Long Beach, an enormous warehouse. He bought a giant edition
of Poe?s The Raven with Gustav Dore illustrations, a book he has to
Later, he would hop in his ?54 Chevy pickup truck and drive to comic
book and science fiction conventions in California. ?I still
occasionally come across one of my old books, with my teenage
handwriting in it,? he said. ?I used to mark my books with a big K.?
Ken Sanders soon discovered John Dunning?s admonition to never, ever
write in a book.
Sometime in the ?60s, Sanders began haunting downtown. In those pre-
Salt Palace days, he said, ?West Temple was Desolation Row, full of
gypsy juke joints and fortune tellers, assay shops and antique
stores.? He remembers buying the first of many prints he would
collect by the American artist and illustrator Maxfield Parrish.
Sam Weller?s bookstore had moved to Main Street and Sanders began
dropping in to browse among his true passion, illustrated books.
?I guess that?s a logical progression from my earlier interest in
comic books,? he said. He bought Lewis Carroll, Arthur Rackham and
N.C. Wyeth. He bought them for the art, but always read them, forming
a foundation for his later life?s work. He would end up working at
Weller?s Zion Book Store on and off for years.
?As I like to tell the story, Sam hired me five times and fired me 10
times. He knew everything about Western Americana and about Utah and
the Mormons, but he knew nothing about the stuff I grew up with,
fantasy and science fiction. When that stuff came into the store, he
was just giving it away. I quickly put a stop to that,? Sanders said.
?But I learned a lot from Sam.? Thinking back, he realizes he still
had a crewcut with butch wax then. ?I graduated high school in 1970
and I?ve only ever had two haircuts since.?
When his 10-year marriage ended, Sanders took on the job of raising
his two children, Michael, then 9, and Melissa, 7. Despite the fact
that he ?raised them like wolves,? they turned out, Sanders said, to
be rather extraordinary human beings. ?Edward Abbey bounced the
infant Melissa on his knee. Everyone from Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder,
Adolf Hungry Wolf, Simon Ortiz, Abbie Hoffman, Dave Foreman, Terry
Tempest Williams and many, many others had interactions with my
kids,? Sanders said.
His children are now in their mid-20s. Melissa followed her father
into the world of antiquarian books; Michael makes six figures
working in the tech world. Melissa pointed out that her father sold
his prized Great Illustrated book collection to put her brother
through college. (Michael?s most recent project was Shrek 2, and
Melissa reports his name is included in the film credits.)
That Sanders? children knew so many literary luminaries of the ?60s,
?70s and ?80s was due, in part, to their father?s involvement with
the original, legendary Cosmic Aeroplane.
Steve Jones founded the store with Sherm Clow in 1967 on 9th and 9th.
It moved to South Temple in 1970, where it became a very happening
place. The draft-counseling center was located there by a leather
shop; the Human Ensemble Theatre did their first show, Dracula, in
the back room and bands played there on other nights. ?There was a
lot of energy that came out of the back room of Cosmic,? Sanders
Eventually, Jones and new partner Bruce Roberts approached Sanders
about managing ?a real? bookstore for them. ?I told them I never
wanted to work for someone else ever again in my life,? Sanders said,
?and basically talked my way into a partnership.?
The business would move several times before landing at 258 E. 100
South above the now-defunct Blue Mouse Theatre, the Tower of the ?70s
and early ?80s. KRCL radio was upstairs. The old Cinegrill was there,
?We bought 500 copies of Robert Redford?s The Outlaw Trail and got
him to sign them so Steve Holbrook could get KRCL on the air,?
Sanders said. They sandblasted the walls of the store and put down
gymnasium flooring from the Utah Valley mental hospital.
?It took off from day one,? Sanders recalled. ?It was enormously
successful. We had the bookstore, the head shop; Smokey Koelsch ran
the record store and went on to own Smokey?s Records. Tony Martinez,
who managed the head shop is now the entrepreneur of his own dynasty,
the Blue Boutique,? Sanders said. ?Camille Chart has Chameleon; she
managed the jewelry bar.?
He sold out in 1981, when the business was grossing almost $1.5
million a year. ?I wasn?t getting along with my partners. I?m just
too stubborn and pigheaded to work for anyone else. But I don?t think
we realized what a really great thing we had going,? Sanders said.
Jones sold out the next year, and Roberts hung on as the store slowly
died, according to Sanders. ?The younger generation thinks what I
call the ?fake? Cosmic Aeroplane is the real one. Bruce didn?t renew
the trademark for some reason and this other guy got it.?
In 1980, Sanders had founded Dream Garden Press ?to publish this one
book we could never keep in stock at Cosmic.? Titled Footprints in
the Wilderness: A History of the Lost Rhodes Mine, the book is all
about Mormon gold and Brigham Young and tales of adventure, ?mostly
not true. But everyone wanted this book,? Sanders said. It sold 5,000
copies. Between 1981-85, Sanders also published the Earth First!
Newsletter out of Dream Garden Press.
After leaving the Aeroplane, Sanders worked until 1985 at building up
his publishing business, putting out about two dozen regional books,
plus an enormous line of calendars. ?The Edward Abbey Western
Wilderness Calendar,? by far the most popular, ran from 1982 to 1992.
Eventually, though, Sanders? calendar empire crumbled.
He still has Dream Garden Press ?but I only publish something when I
can afford to because I don?t ever want to go into debt again,?
Sanders said. He put out the wickedly funny Utah: Gateway to Nevada
in the ?80s; one of the last books he published was the equally
irreverent Mondo Utah by Trent Harris.
There is one book Sanders considers his crowning achievement: Ed
Abbey?s The Monkey Wrench Gang illustrated by R. Crumb, one of the
most famous popular illustrators of the last three decades. ?I?m the
one who got Abbey and Crumb together. People still love that book to
this day,? Sanders said of the book he published in 1985.
He had a long, strange relationship with Abbey. ?He hated
telephones,? Sanders revealed. ?It was like a Zen conversation
because unless you said something there was dead silence on the line.
He never held up his end of the conversation.?
Sanders has a particularly entertaining story about encountering
Abbey?s real-life Monkey Wrench Gang, Earth First!, at Lake Powell.
?They told me of their plans to drop a 300-foot plastic and paper
crack [drawn to make it look as if the dam was about to give way]
down Glen Canyon Dam first thing in the morning. I said, ?That sounds
like fun. I?m in.?? His truck became the Earth First! stage, right in
the parking lot and Sanders recalls that a ranger (translation: the
enemy) asked Abbey to sign his copy of Desert Solitaire. ?About 15
minutes later all hell broke loose as law enforcement from two states
showed up. They eventually cut the plastic crack off the dam and
nobody got arrested,? Sanders said.
?Abbey and I traveled quite a bit, chasing [Reagan Interior
Secretary] James Watt around the West,? Sanders said. Being followed
and taped by FBI agents ?was creeping me out. Not my idea of a good
time,? Sanders said about the end of his radical environmentalist
THE WELL-READ DROPOUT
He regrets that he didn?t go to college. ?I guess I didn?t have a
clear idea what higher education was about then.? He was 17 when the
draft lottery was instituted. ?On national TV, like it?s some kind of
freaking game show, Richard Nixon reaches into this cage of Ping-Pong
balls and draws out Dec. 4th, which is my birthday, as the very first
date to be drafted into Vietnam. I wasn?t subject to it that year,
but I had to start thinking about it. For me, going to college or
Vietnam, there wasn?t much difference. They were both prisons,?
Melissa went to work for her father part time after high school. She
said, ?In the early ?90s he had this hole-in-the-wall store behind a
motorcycle shop. He was only open by appointment. Bruce Roberts was
running Wasatch Book Distribution?he was leaving and we grabbed the
It was Sanders? dream store. He remembers walking around the vast
space, a glass of whisky in hand, surveying and making plans for his
While his inventory focuses on the generation of writers of
environmentalism (Ed Abbey, Wallace Stegner, Gary Snyder), there are
selections on Native American literature, Latin literature, Asian and
Black literature, sci-fi, mystery novels and old children?s books.
There?s a large inventory of 19th-and early 20th-century photography,
19th-century maps and atlases, historical documents, posters, prints
and art; postcards and paper ephemera as well as ?60s rock & roll
posters. His rare books include literary first editions, with many
signed modern first editions.
But Carrier said Sanders does more than sell old books. ?He tries to
promote local writers and artists because he knows the tradition or
whatever you want to call it is ongoing. Like he?s crazy about Leia
Bell silk screens [see cover] because she comes out of this local
scene. So in his store you?ll find everything from the first reports
by the corps of topographical engineers who explored this area to all
the various Mormon texts to Edward Abbey and Trent Harris.
?He?s the only guy I know around here who can actually put it all
together and explain how it goes from one thing to another, like an
art historian. Part of that is business, part of it is that he just
can?t help himself. He complains about how hard it is to stay in
business, but you take away the store and he?d still be buying and
selling this stuff, because he loves it.?
Sanders has held more than a hundred ?events? in the store at 268 S.
200 East, all free, all well attended. During the Olympics, he
presented ?Brigham Young: The Psychedelic Years? with performances by
Trent Harris, Alex Caldiero, Scott Carrier and Sanders himself.
Carrier gave his first-ever reading at the store?s grand opening in
August 1996 along with writer Charles Bowden and poet Alex Caldiero.
But the first day was a total bust in terms of sales. ?We didn?t sell
a dime,? Sanders said flatly.
?We?ve had slow days since, but never a zero again.?
Hundreds of people attended a two-day symposium Sanders called
?Genuine Fakes: The Forgeries of Mark Hofmann,? at the Broadway
Theatre. Participants included forensic examiner George Throckmorton,
Steve Mayfield with the Salt Lake City Police Crime Lab, documents
and autograph dealer Kenneth Rendell, Hofmann expert and antiquarian
book dealer Jennifer Larsen, Simon Worrall (author of The Poet and
the Murderer) and a surprise appearance by Dorie Olds, Hofmann?s ex-
As a man who stands vigilant against anyone trying to pass off
fraudulent first editions, Sanders took a particular interest in
presenting the symposium. Even before Hofmann was exposed as a forger
and a killer, Sanders had a sixth sense that something was amiss with
the man during a one-time meeting before the Mormon forgery scandal
of 1986 broke wide open. He said he was instantly repelled by
Hofmann, almost as if the two represented fire and ice.
The bookshop is a friend to local poets, writers and artists. Sanders
said the shop?s motto is best described as ?creating chaos out of
anarchy for a better tomorrow.? Sanders counts writer Rick Bass, poet
Gary Snyder, John Dunning and writer Charles Bowden among the
luminaries who?ve walked through the door of his store.
Even rival bookstore owners speak well of Sanders. ?Ken has a
consummate knowledge of books, old and new, and is as passionate a
book person as I know,? said Betsy Burton of The King?s English. ?He
is known all over the country, at least in the rare-book world, as a
bookman in the best sense of the word ? He may not be rich but I
suspect he?s happy?he?s managed to make a living doing what he loves
best. Not many people can say that. And he?s amassed an astonishing
Carrier believes Sanders deserves a better building, maybe on Main
Street, ?but he can?t afford the rent and he?s not one to apply for
Sanders was never a lumberjack, but claims that is the only task
related to books he hasn?t done.
That is, except to write one, and he is working on that: ?I have a
100-page handwritten manuscript called ?R. Crumb Meets the Monkey
Wrench Gang.? I?d like to finish that,? he said. ?Just to see if I
can do it or not.?
Who knows? Sanders might even locate his nemesis, George David Holt,
or solve the murder of the Russian rare-book dealer, if he can get
time away from his books.
?I have no life but books,? Sanders said with a sigh.
And, as he well knows, books are full of life.
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