Literary Arts

Ken Sanders’ Bureaucratic Nightmare

Ken Sanders in 2003

by Geoff Wichert

Last year many Salt Lake residents, who are known for searching the news for local names and familiar faces, were delighted to see downtown bookstore stalwart Ken Sanders recognized as perhaps the nation’s leading enemy of antiquarian book thieves. In The Man Who Loved Books Too Much
Allison Hoover Bartlett recounts Sanders’ efforts to capture a leading rare book thief known for preying on the necessary trust shared by book traders and collectors. Such criminals routinely rob us all of an important part of our shared cultural heritage, comfortable in the knowledge that their crimes are measured in strict dollar values and thus punished far more lightly than the actual damage they do. How ironic it is, then, that Ken Sanders is now fighting for his commercial life, his status as a leading figure in Utah popular and academic history under threat from dubious sources. As detailed on the store’s website, antiquarian bookstores are only one of the commercial interests threatened by a bureaucratic nightmare currently being unleashed on an unsuspecting public by overzealous lawmakers. Sanders explains:

In the past few years, the Utah State Legislature, sponsored by Senator Jon Greiner and Rep. Rebecca Lockhart, have passed a new law, referred to as the second hand and pawn shop bill, (S.B. 212) that will in essence put most, if not all, antiquarian book shops, antiques dealers, and other purveyors of used or second hand merchandise out of business, due to certain draconian aspects of said law.  These measures include requiring me to fingerprint and id everyone from whom I purchase used and rare books and submit same to a state database, and catalog and maintain and upload a database of all inventory of used and rare books and submit same to the state database every 24 hours . . . .  I would like to know why Ms. Lockhart and Mr. Greiner are trying to put my shop and trade out of business, along with the entire antiques trade, and all other sellers of used and second hand goods?  This is not a small business friendly law and will have not only a severe impact on those of us merchants directly impacted by this new law, but will surely have a large and reverberating impact on City, County and State governments and their revenue from sales tax and income tax.

In order to keep my business alive, I need the legislature to extend the exemptions covering the antiques and antiquarian book trades.

As anyone who’s tried to get on an airplane since 9/11 can testify, the legislature sometimes seems to prefer a sledge-hammer to a scalpel and may actually do as much damage as good in such matters. Worse, a law that only covers Utah—at a time when the trade in stolen goods has spread beyond borders due to exploitation of the Internet by thieves—will only drive dealers like Sanders, who last year made Joseph Smith’s family bible available to an interested pubic in his store, out of the state in search of a better business climate. And lest we sit back, complacently, thinking that if we don’t buy and sell antiquarian books this doesn’t affect us, consider this: Marcel Duchamp used to argue that the life of a work of art is fifty years. After that, he said, a painting is an antique, with an antique’s value. He was more right than he knew. A Vermeer is treasured because of its quality, but it’s valuable because of its age and scarcity. If the trade in old books can be driven underground, why not the trade in paintings and sculptures, let alone prints and ephemera such as Sanders sells. This is the time when everyone who cares about the continuing availability of rare and wonderful gems must stand up and demand that laws meant to protect them actually work in the public’s favor, rather than against the very qualities that make books, works of art, and other documents of our past both precious AND available to us.

Anyone concerned with helping improve this important if misguided legislative issue is urged to consult the material on this question posted on Ken Sanders’ website and to consider making a phone call or writing a letter to the persons and places he refers to.

Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.

Categories: Literary Arts

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