Ken Sanders needed three years to put a book swindler in San Quentin prison and nearly as long to track down the name of the bedtime story he told his children.
It was the latter tale Sanders, the rare-books collector, shared with StoryCorps as the oral-history project opened shop Thursday in Salt Lake City.
"I would tell them this bedtime story, and what I couldn't remember I just made up," Sanders said. "The book haunted me for years."
He read countless children's books before rediscovering George McDonald's "The Princess and the Goblin," one of the many tales that shaped Sanders' love of books.
"It's just beautiful. It's got everything," Sanders said. "This young kid has got to rescue the princess from the goblin's subterranean chambers under the mountain. He's got this invisible thread he has to follow, and you can imagine, if you lose this invisible thread, you'll never find it again."
In a way, the StoryCorps project is trying to hold onto an invisible thread of its own, gathering stories of Americana that might be lost otherwise.
The oral-history project, arguably the most ambitious of its kind, has collected more than 25,000 stories in five years of touring the United States with its mobile studio.
Tales range from a man who once shined James Brown's shoes to a woman who kept all the Girl Scout Cookies for the Los Angeles area in her garage, only to see them stolen.
"It's such a broad and diverse sampling of life experiences," said StoryCorps' Anna Walters. "This is a little bit like sending out a time capsule."
The project's trailer-turned-studio will record about 150 stories in the six weeks it spends parked in Washington Square. Stories are recorded as participants spend 40 minutes interviewing and conversing with a friend.
"The project helps us to learn about who we are — about our past, our present, our aspirations for the future," said Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker. "When we listen, we are learning; and when we listen, we are all touched in some way."6 comments on this story
Each story carries some sort of emotion for its teller, and the interview process can be powerful, Walters said, recalling an interview between a 13-year-old boy and his father.
"I just had the feeling that this father and this son had never sat down and looked each other in the eye for 40 minutes," she said. "It's not so much the content of the story but watching the permission to ask questions the microphone gives you with someone you love is something that is incredible to see."
Starting Friday, those interested in participating can sign up online at www.storycorps.net or by calling 800-850-4406.