Ken Sanders Rare Books adds children’s reading room space at The Leonardo

After decades working in the book business in Utah — first with counterculture icon Cosmic Airplane, and now with his rare book Rare Books by Ken Sanders — Ken Sanders said he had never before had a children’s reading space in one of his stores.

So far, that is. As he is in the process of moving Ken Sanders’ rare books to a new dig at Leonardo, at 209 E. 500 south of downtown Salt Lake City, the 70-year-old Sanders is scheduled to open a children’s reading room on Saturday, Sept.24.

“We’ve got very good stock here,” Sanders said recently, pointing to books he loves in the 300-square-foot reading area where construction was being completed. “We are just getting started. We will have books for every age group. Young readers will be on the lower shelves, because youngsters cannot reach that height.”

Even as Sanders’ team was putting the finishing touches on, the space was already comfortable. It’s located in the far back corner space that Sanders shares with Leonardo’s gift shop. In his old shop at 200 East—which he had to leave for development—he only had one shelf for children’s books, making the prospect of a new space all the more exciting.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Themed rugs in the new children’s reading room of Ken Sanders’ Rare Books at Leonardo’s in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, September 6, 2022.

The floor is covered with various rugs, cut to fit, that Sanders and his staff found online. It has various icons of children’s literature: “Harry Potter”, “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” among them.

On one wall is a map that Sanders said was his favourite: the Land of Imagination. “I’ve got every archetype of fairy tales from around the world, originally done in 1930,” he said.

Sanders said he plans to add a small table and some chairs, along with pillows the kids can curl up on and read on, and some book-related trinkets.

The shelves, which will look towering for children, feature new and used books, bearing well-known titles such as “Goosebumps,” “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” There is a row of Hardy Boys puzzles waiting to be rediscovered by a new generation of young readers.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A rack of “Hardy Boys” puzzles is in the new children’s reading room at Ken Sanders Rare Books at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, September 6, 2022.

The bookcases symbolize some of Sanders’ personal history. He designed the shelves in the early 1970s, making them for the cosmic plane. When the store was gone, Pat Ortega, owner of Bookshelf in Ogden, bought the shelves — and 48 years later, Sanders bought them from the Ortega family.

Another shelf, in the shape of a robot, will contain new releases. An area outside the children’s space will contain books for young people.

Sanders held a contest to name the children’s division, and it garnered a few dozen entries. He said the winning entry was from author Terry Tempest Williams: “Where the Wild Things Are” taken from Maurice Sendak’s classic. Sanders tweaked the name slightly, to avoid directly ripping your bond, so the area is called Where the Wild Things Are.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The space in the basement of The Leonardo in Salt Lake City, where Ken Sanders plans to display his rare books, Tuesday, September 6, 2022.

Big dreams, big gamble

Sanders has big plans for the space at Leonardo. As people paraded around the basement, which has lights hanging from the ceiling and a boundless empty space, he talked about where he intends to house his rare book collection, along with an art gallery and more display boxes.

He stopped at several boxes in the pantry, took out a book and began to read aloud. His voice changed and adapted to the different characters and experiences on the pages, pausing to share tidbits about the background and other context.

Do I have a problem buying books? asked Sanders, shrugging his shoulders, pointing to the boxes of books around him. “I don’t know. The most I bought were 80,000 books of poetry.”

Sanders’ latest attempt at reinvention is still a gamble. GoFundMe’s launch of the store in 2020 is still ongoing, raising $167,000 in pledges so far.

“If I were smart,” he said, “I would go to the hobbit pit with my rare books and sell them online for a lot of money and forget the rest.” In fact, he said he made about $3,000 over Labor Day weekend just from ordering online.

“I don’t know where the money will come from,” he said, “but I didn’t have it.” It gets a little stressful, he said, adding that he wishes he had an “easy savings account” to withdraw from. “But I spend every cent on buying books,” he said.

Why are books banned?

Now that he’s a grandfather, Sanders said he’s learning more outside of his specialty in rare books. (He said collectors of rare books are a “strange breed” of people.)

“What I’ve learned over 50 years in the business: Everyone who comes into your store — customers and employees — brings things. Sometimes it’s negative, but it’s mostly positive.”

Sanders said the new kids’ room is his way of offering something to Utah’s youngest and most vulnerable residents — those who, arguably, need it most right now.

“It’s up to the kids,” he said. “It starts with the kids.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A shelf of books titled “Forbidden in Utah” at Ken Sanders Rare Books at Leonardo’s in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, September 6, 2022.

Sanders has deplored the recent increased efforts to ban books in schools and libraries. In his old space, he had a display case for banned books, and he has another copy of that in the new store. He said that while he does not want his new children’s area to become “lightning-proof,” he hopes it will be a safe place for children to learn and entertain.

“Any parent, every parent, you have the right to choose what your children read,” Sanders said. “I would never, ever argue against that. But the moment you cross the line to tell what other parents and other kids can read, that’s it. Game over.”

Sanders said that many of the books that have been banned talk about “things that whites don’t want us to talk about.”

He pointed to two books in his children’s biographical section: one by civil rights icon Rosa Parks, and the other was “Hidden Figures,” the story of the African American woman who calculated the numbers for early NASA space missions.

“You can find yourself, whoever you are, reflected in children’s literature today,” Sanders said. “That’s what we’re trying to do in this children’s book room: to be inclusive, not exclusive.”

Ken Sanders Rare Books Sanders will have the grand opening of the children’s area “Where the Wild Things Be,” Saturday, September 24, from 1-2:30 p.m. Sanders will read Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and Ul De Rico’s “Rainbow” imps. Utah Folksinger Kate McLeod is scheduled to perform. The event is free, and every child and youth will be able to take home a free book.

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