In this era of mergers, acquisitions and, sadly, bankruptcies, there aren't many companies left in Utah that can trace their roots back to the 19th century.

One of the tenacious few is Deseret Book Co., the Salt Lake City-based corporation that is one of the few booksellers in the nation to combine publishing, wholesaling, retailing and mail order into one operation - with a handicraft store on board as well, just to keep things interesting.Deseret Book is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, although the route to that longevity has taken several side streets and more than a couple of names. (See sidebar for a look at the company's history).

Despite Deseret Book's long tenure, it is not resting on its laurels, assures Ronald A. Millett, president for the past eight years and a 19-year veteran with the company since graduation from Southern Utah State College.

Deseret Book is a wholly owned subsidiary of Deseret Management Corp., the holding company for tax-paying businesses owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But church ownership doesn't insulate it from the rigors of competition in a crowded market, assures Millett, particularly since Deseret Book is, for the most part, a full-line retailer in direct competition with the national chains such as Waldenbooks and B. Dalton.

"We are expected to be profitable," he said.

But Deseret Book is also expected to serve the needs and expectations of its LDS clientele, he pointed out, which sometimes means publishing books that have less than bestseller potential but which Deseret Book managers and directors believe need to be available.

That sometimes means walking a fine line between availability and profitability, noted Millett, one of several such lines that must be trod by a company that cannot put the "bottom line" ahead of all other considerations.

Another is the difficulty in being a full-line bookstore for a conservative, church-oriented clientele in an age when many mainstream bestsellers contain language and situations that some might consider pornography.

That means, said Millett, that Deseret Book must be more sensitive to the general-interest books it sells. On occasion, that means not stocking a particular title, or pulling one from the shelves if it is later found to be offensive. "We can't read everything in advance," Millett said.

That means making judgment calls, because what is offensive to one Deseret Book customer may not be to another, even within the LDS community. Again, it's another fine line that Millett and his associates must walk. Inevitably, whichever call they make, they will still field complaints from customers on both sides who let them know they got it wrong. Sort of like being a referee in the NBA.

"Overall, it means we have to be more selective," Millett said. "Many of our readers are looking for alternatives to the kind of fiction we are now seeing nationally, and that's what we try to give them."

(As a note of clarification, only the company's Utah stores are full-line operations with an approximate 60/40 percent mix of LDS to non-LDS books. Outside the state, they are more heavily weighted toward LDS materials. In all cases, said Millett, the company's primary emphasis is on LDS-related merchandise.)

Despite Deseret Book's long history as a Utah business, the major growth has taken place during the past 20 years. When Millett was hired in 1972 by Wm. James Mortimer, then general manager, now Deseret News publisher, it was to become the manager of the new Deseret Book store at University Mall in Orem. At that time, there were only four other stores in the chain: downtown, Cottonwood Mall, Valley Fair Mall and in Orange, Calif., the first out-of-state store.

Today, there are some 475 employees (more during the holiday season), 24 branch stores in Utah, California, Idaho, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon, and three mail-order operations: Deseret Book Club, Deseret Audio Plus (an audio tape club) and Deseret Direct catalog sales. In addition, the company operates a 90,000-square-foot distribution center, opened in 1978 at 2150 W. 1500 South.

Sales and earnings figures for this privately owned company are not released, but Millett says that 1990 - threats of war and impending recession notwithstanding - was quite good to Deseret Book and he looks for no major letdown this year. Roger K. Toone, vice president of the Retail Division, agrees.

"Deseret Book doesn't seem to experience the peaks and valleys of much of the industry specifically and retailing overall," said Toone. "In fact, in some recessions we have done all right."

For example, he said, while books always make good gifts, people often turn to giving books when, in better times, they might have bought something more expensive.

Either way, as with all retailers, the fourth-quarter Christmas buying season accounts for about 40 percent of total Deseret Book sales for the year, he said.

A word on the handicraft store mentioned above. It doesn't exactly fit in with Deseret Book's line of business, but when the women of the LDS Church's Relief Society decided in March 1986 that they could no longer operate the Mormon Handicraft facililty at 105 N. Main, Deseret Book took the popular store into its fold rather than see it close.

The expansion at Deseret Book in the past two decades has outstripped that of the previous century, and there's more to come, Millett said. But it won't be growth for its own sake.

"Everything we do is predicated on how we can best serve our customers."