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Book shop continues to thrive on niche LDS offerings

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 17 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Curt Bench of Benchmark Books, laughs as he talks about what has made his bookstore successfull. (PHOTO BY CHUCK WING/DESERET NEWS)

Chuck Wing, Dnews

With the book world belonging to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, ebooks and Kindles these days, being a small, independent book shop is a little like being a dolphin in a school of sharks.

With luck, you might survive until dinnertime.

That's why Benchmark Books celebrating 25 years in the business is such a coup.

Located upstairs in an office building at 3269 S. Main in Salt Lake City, the little LDS bookstore has not only survived, it has thrived.

Curt Bench, the owner and manager, sat down with me last week and shared some insights about how his mom-and-pop bookstore has found its way in a business that seems to change almost daily.

First, he says, the old rules of success always apply. You have to offer a good product at good prices with good service.

But after that, it's all about knowing your books and knowing your customers.

"There's a spiritual quality in the Mormon book market that you don't find in other places," he says. "People usually buy books with no intention of ever reselling them. You can never lose sight of that."

If you need a "niche" to make it in the book business, you might say the Benchmark niche is catering to readers who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and are educated, curious and always looking for something fresh and even unusual to read. The store has a solid supply of classic LDS volumes, but where Benchmark makes its bones is with out-of-print books and hard-to-find books from small presses and university outlets. Rare books play a big role at the store. First edition copies of the Book of Mormon come and go, as do other collectible gems.

And what would be the Holy Grail of Mormon collecting?

According to Bench, probably the early Book of Commandments where Wilford Woodruff copied Joseph Smith's later revelations onto the pages by hand, or maybe the special Book of Mormon that W.W. Phelps printed for his wife, with real gold ground into the ink.

"I remember the first time someone offered to sell me a Book of Commandments (precursor to the Doctrine and Covenants)," says Bench. "I was physically shaking when I held it."

Over the years, the LDS rare book world has been forced to weather many squalls. There was the Mark Hoffmann scandal, of course. And then the ups and downs, ins and outs of recessions and people hoarding certain books in the hopes of driving up the prices. But all in all, says Bench, rare LDS books have proven to be a solid investment. He figures they increase in value, on average, about 10 percent a year.

But in the end, the biggest reason Bench has been able to succeed comes down to customer loyalty. People like his store, they like him and they like to drop by and chat books.

"People come up to me and say, 'I'm so glad you're doing this,'" says Bench.

And that, he says, makes him glad he's doing it as well.

Jerry Johnston is a former Deseret News staff writer. "New Harmony" appears every other week in Mormon Times. Email: jerjohn@desnews.com

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