What some people will pay for a piece of religious history.

With the stock market in the tank, post-Sept. 11 jitters about terrorism and a constant stream of bad news in recent months, it seems many investors are looking for a way to invest their cash in "hard assets."

According to local dealers, many are finding at least some solace in rare Mormon books.

In fact, the rising popularity of rare Mormon documents and books — and the soaring prices they fetch — means book dealers around the country are "very aware of the demand" for the items according to Ken Sanders, whose store at 268 S. 200 East has a large collection of Mormon titles, in addition to classics, western Americana and a host of other genres.

"If you look at these kinds of prices for Mormon rarities and compare them to other 19th century rarities — Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens or Charles Darwin originals — Mormon book prices dwarf all these others. You have to get back to Shakespeare folios to find things that are more expensive — and they obviously go back several hundred years more, so they're extraordinarily valuable just on an age basis."

And while some may actually be worth the going price, Sanders is at once amazed and a bit disturbed by the skyrocketing prices he sees in some of the older scriptures produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"It's getting to be like an old-time African big game hunter mentality," says Sanders. "I'm seeing a lot of folks with new affluence who don't have the patience to learn history."

Sanders said most such new collectors are looking for a first-edition copy of the Book of Mormon. Some 5,000 original copies were printed in 1830 after LDS Church founder Joseph Smith said he translated the text — which Latter-day Saints believe was a spiritual history of early inhabitants of the Americas — from gold plates he received from an angel. Early church leaders canonized the book, which is considered scripture and distributed widely by the church's missionaries.

Collectors seek the first-edition books out "because of their faith," Sanders said. "The Book of Mormon is the Holy Grail of Mormon collecting, but it's not a rare book. A rare book just by definition is one that just because you want it doesn't mean you can have it."

As for a first-edition Book of Mormon, Sanders says he sees more than 100 of them each year. "If you're willing to pay me $60,000, I'll have a first-edition (Book of Mormon) FedExed and here in 24 hours."

With such prices being paid, it would seem Sanders would applaud the trend, since he can profit from the sales. Instead, he's concerned that "people really are just stockpiling Mormon rarities, and they usually have a very narrow definition of collecting."

Sanders says he's personally seen collections that have numbered as high as 20 first-edition copies of the Book of Mormon. "I can't tell you what the point is. A lot of it is investment driven. Despite the economic turndowns, I've seen an increasingly affluent base of well-to-do Mormons, and hence you have this Holy Grail syndrome. People want an artifact of their religion," and prices continue to climb, he said.

Early editions of other uniquely LDS scriptures — the Doctrine and Covenants — are also among those most sought out.

"It's a very narrow focus of collecting that ignores the larger history, which to me is the most fascinating part of all."

A truly rare LDS book is the first edition of the "Book of Commandments," which later became known as the Doctrine and Covenants. The original printing began in Independence, Mo., only to have anti-Mormon mobbers destroy the printing press and scatter the book's pages in the early stages of printing.

The only copies saved were those pages that were collected after being scattered, which were later hand-stitched and bound together, Sanders said. Most had no title page. Only 26 or 27 copies of that book have ever surfaced, yet Sanders said he sold an incomplete Book of Commandments for $200,000 last year.

Bret Eborn, owner of a new Eborn Books consignment store at 433 E. 300 South, said the interest in rare Mormon books is part of what drives his new business philosophy. His store, which opened three months ago, caters to nearly 100 customers who have stacks of books they want to sell.

While Eborn deals in all kinds of titles, the most actively traded and largest segment of his business is in Mormon books, he said. Whether customers inherited the books upon the death of a relative, or have a collection that's older and are looking to weed out some titles, all of Eborn's current 30,000-volume inventory is comprised of books he is selling on consignment. Some 5,000 of those belong to one customer alone.

"Over time I think it will really catch on," he said, looking over shelf after shelf of his ever-growing inventory. Open for 90 days, he's had 91 customers bring books in to sell. He charges 50 cents per volume to shelve the books on his regular shelves, and $2 as a handling fee to put books customers consider "rare" inside his locking glass case. When a book is sold, he takes a percentage of the profit based on the sales price. The percentage is smaller the pricier the book gets.

Eborn says he's sold several books in the $9,000 to $10,000 range the past three months, most of them Mormon titles, and the owners keep 95 percent of the sales price. Such a system benefits both Eborn and the seller, he said, noting that many of his customers have been dismayed at the prices they've been offered by book dealers.

"This way, they get to keep more of the cash and we can fill a store without investing in anything" but a building and utilities. Others have questioned whether he can make it go, but Eborn believes "we'll make money off the sheer volume of business we do."

A few large sales generate enough money to pay the rent and the rest is profit, Eborn said, adding that business has been so good to date he's considered closing his retail store in Roy and establishing a second consignment store in the Sandy area.

Eborn has been in the business for about 20 years, he said, and was the first to publish a price guide dealing strictly with rare Mormon books. The first edition helped give collectors some kind of benchmark for what their books were worth, and what was collectible. The second edition, due out in the next few weeks, will reflect the price inflation for many LDS books — some of which have skyrocketed in value, he said.

Yet his major focus of late has been his new store, but it's not just walk-in traffic that makes the store go, Eborn said. Selling on the internet has opened a whole new vista for booksellers who actively use it. Eborn said he's now working to put all of his consignment store inventory on his Web site.

"The world is changing and we have to change the way we do business," he said.

The internet has made book dealers of "anyone with a computer and a spare bedroom," according to Sanders, who sees the proliferation of book-selling web sites as a by-product of eBay's successful online auction site for rare books, including LDS titles. Sanders sees eBay as "the mighty confluence where ignorance meets greed on both the part of the buyer and seller."

As an example in Mormon books, Sanders said he recently saw a Deseret alphabet copy of the Book of Mormon sell for $10,000 on eBay. "I've had those in and sold them, and they don't go for anywhere near that price."

But price seems, in some measure, to depend more on what customers are willing to pay than anything else.

Albert Chubak, a local flooring contractor whose book collecting started a couple of years ago when he acquired hundreds of old LDS books from a customer who was ready to throw them in the trash, says the Internet has opened a second career for him. His virtual bookstore, dubbed Wasatch Books, generates enough cash on the side that when his knees give out, he thinks he'd like to spend full-time selling books. He's finishing his degree in history to augment his knowledge about rare books, he says.

His collection of 800 books has been acquired within the past two years. Customers love the internet, he says, because they can buy and sell without going to a book dealer as the middleman — something Chubak believes is ultimately better for the customer.

"The book dealers in the valley had a corner on the market for such a long time. If you wanted to sell one, you'd take it in to them and they'd give you a price like $50 and then turn around and list it for $800 or $900."

To illustrate, Chubak said he knows of a recent instance where an older woman needed money and had a first-edition Book of Mormon that had come down through her family members. She took it to a local book dealer without having any idea how much it was worth. When the clerk offered her $15,000, she was ecstatic, and sold it. "The problem is, you can sell one of those for at least $50,000 any day of the week."


E-mail: [email protected]