On any given Saturday, you can walk into Ken Sanders Rare Bookstore and find its owner, bibliophile and polymath Ken Sanders, holding court. Sanders, as much as his shop, is a source of information, referring to random bits of Utah history and counterculture lore. 

This is Salt Lake’s Living Room. And we’re about to say good-bye to it. The bulldozers are stirring.

Like so many memorable, even iconic, places in Salt Lake City Ken Sanders Rare Books and the block anchored by the Green Ant furniture store will be razed by a developer, in this case, Ivory Homes. In its place? Yet another “multi-use” mid-rise building.

“There is tremendous pressure for businesses downtown to produce more dollars per square foot,” says Downtown Alliance Director Dee Brewer. “Residential rates, office rates—they’re all skyrocketing and small businesses are moved out of the way.”

In this year’s 2019 State of Downtown event, Jerry and Kestrel Liedtke, owners of The Tin Angel, were presented with a Downtown Achievement Award for their bold move in 2007 to open their restaurant in the blighted area across from Pioneer Park. They created a second location in the Eccles Theater last summer. But in September, disputes with a landlord who, according to Kestrel, has plans to develop the property, led to the Liedtke’s leaving the original award-garnering site.

Is Salt Lake City ‘Great?’

Sugar House Granite Block
The old Granite Block of Sugar House. Photo by Adam Finkle/Salt Lake magazine

Sugar House Lost

In 2008, the Granite Block on the corner of 1100 East and 2100 South, home to a row of cool shops and Sugar House Coffee, was demolished but the Great Recession stalled a new project. The resulting ‘Sugar Hole,’ a fenced off demolition site, gaped like an open wound and became a symbol of hasty development decisions. Shovels started turning again and the resulting mixed-use project was completed in 2013. But the new retail and food spaces are largely chains. Gone are the quirky low-rent consignment stores, the cheeky Blue Boutique (which moved east near Sugar House Park), and the unique sense of place that—ironically—had made the area desirable.

In 2016, urban planner Alex Garvin wrote a book titled What Makes a Great City; in it, he lists the essentials—and Salt Lake City fails to measure up to most of them.

According to Garvin, a great city should be open to anyone. Yet Salt Lake City’s core has always been Temple Square, a “public space” that’s walled all around, centered by a building whose doors are closed to most and with strict rules about what you can wear and how you’re supposed to behave. Temple Square includes a chunk of what used to be a public Main Street, excising what was a vital block in downtown from the rest.

In 2003, a new Salt Lake City Library was opened and in a sense, the building has become the secular center of the city, where many of the city’s multi-cultural celebrations and discussions take place. And between those two anchors, the rest of the city, the business district, is where money and culture are clashing.

“There is a tension between these three parts of downtown,” says Brewer.

Developers, he says, haven’t demonstrated understanding of how essential character is to a city. The old, the unique, the quirky actually add value to property, attracts leaseholders and population.

Lost Among Giants

Amid the two countervailing poles of Temple Square and The Library, tucked into the crevices between the banks and big businesses, the little places that grew up as stubborn, cheeky and rebellious counterpoints to a homogeneous culture, are struggling to stay afloat. But although new buildings are required to have a streetside presence, it’s hard for a municipality, to always affect what developers do with their property, Brewer says.

“It has to be the ethos of the property owners. They have to see the net potential, that if they preserve interest and charm it will be an economic win for them.”

Sanders is less-than sanguine about it all. A lover of old things, and a keeper of weird Utah lore, Sanders, built his second-hand and rare book shop out of the remains of Cosmic Aeroplane, a head shop that was more than just bongs. It was a counter-cultural gathering space. Now after 23 years at his own shop, he feels fortunate to have had such a long run but still a sense of inequality rankles.

“We gave Amazon a $5.6 million tax break to build a warehouse,” Sanders says. “Gov. Herbert, where’s my $5,600 dollars?”

True, Sanders’ fiscal contribution to the local economy is minimal but his cranky place on 300 East and 300 South is an anchor for local authors, poets, and musicians. He works to shine a spotlight on literary figures from Utah’s past like Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey and Everett Ruess and he works to find and uncover a different story of Utah than we hear on Pioneer Day.

Isn’t that worth something?

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