A Fascinating Life

Curt-at-his-storeBy Curt Bench

IN NEARLY FORTY years as an LDS bookseller, I have met or done business with people along the entire Mormon spectrum, from general authorities to fundamentalist Mormons, and with pretty much every type of Mormon or anti-Mormon in between. In the early 1980s, I once counted Mark W. Hofmann as not only a close business associate but also a personal friend. I sold copies of the Pearl of Great Price to a man who was convinced he could see visions in the three printed facsimiles found in each copy. He had also compiled several volumes of conversations with his mother—long dead at the time they occurred. Best of all, though, he always paid cash for the books he purchased. One of our customers claims to have ten million books in his personal library (by comparison, the BYU Library has about six million items in all of its collections), financed by his own gold mine.

I have dealt with and developed friendships with some of the finest people on earth, but I have also encountered more than my share of book thieves and sociopaths. Once, an employee and I set up a sting operation and caught a known book thief red-handed. He claimed he had just been borrowing books from us, planning to return them, but when he brought back some of the purloined volumes, they were all marked and highlighted. One repentant book thief brought in many times more books than he had stolen in order to make restitution.

I have been saddened by the many tales I hear from distressed customers who have sought out Benchmark Books in search of things not available in mainstream LDS bookstores to find answers to troubling questions on faith and history. So many of them tell of being scorned, warned, or shunned by local leaders, family, or friends. Many of them have now left the fold.

However, the vast majority of experiences I’ve had over these four decades have been positive, even exciting at times. I find no greater joy in my work than discussing with kindred spirits the first love of my life: books. I’ve had countless stimulating conversations about books which often lead to discussions and closer examinations of LDS history and doctrine. My education has been greatly enhanced by listening to authors speak about their books and then discussing them with me and the customers who come to book signings or who just wander over to join in when we engage outside formal events. Frequently I have talked to customers about a given book that I’ve been excited about reading and then watched as they have responded to my enthusiasm with their own kindled interest. It is very gratifying to discuss the book again after the customer has read it and to discover we have indeed found ourselves “on the same page.”

I have been privileged to see and handle books and artifacts of exceeding rarity and value. More than one original 1833 Book of Commandments has passed through my hands—one selling for more than a million dollars. Once I found and sold a first edition Book of Mormon that had two handwritten and signed notes in it by John H. Gilbert (who worked for E.B. Grandin and typeset the first edition of the Book of Mormon) who certified his involvement with the “Mormon Bible.”Another highlight was facilitating the purchase of Brigham Young’s personal copy of the now very rare Hawaiian first edition of the Book of Mormon (1855) that George Q. Cannon had bound uniquely for President Young. I have been fortunate to have had a number of items that once belonged to Wilford Woodruff, including his copies of  the early Church periodicals, Times and Seasons and The Wasp. More than one “set” of ZCMI stock certificates, signed by eight consecutive Church presidents (from Brigham Young through David O. McKay), have come through the store. One time I was able to acquire and sell an entire set of Kirtland Bank Notes bearing the signed names of Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, with some counter-signed by Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball.

I could go on for pages about special items that I have been fortunate to encounter. However, there are also the “ones that got away.” I was once offered a very rare early pamphlet, but not knowing its true value I asked the seller (an intermediary) to check with the owner for a definitive selling price. He said he’d find out and return with the item, but he didn’t, and I lost out on a real treasure. I think I have probably more often regretted not buying certain items than those I have bought. Many of our customers have said the same thing. Truly, the saying is true in this business: “You snooze, you lose.”

Often in the course of appraising the value of certain items for a client’s tax or insurance purposes, I have been able to see but not purchase unusual or even unique pieces. For example, I have been lucky enough to examine thoroughly and evaluate the papers of two Church presidents. Probably the most unusual items I was ever asked to appraise were personal articles of clothing, including socks and a pair of sweats, that had belonged to a high Church leader.

By no means are the items mentioned here the usual stock-in-trade of our business. Rare books and other collectibles have been thrilling to acquire and sell, but, honestly, I’m usually just as pleased to find a more common book a customer has been searching for. (Our standing record for finding a requested out-of-print book is twenty-five years.) The thrill of the hunt is real, but the pleasure of succeeding in placing the book in the hands of a person longing for it is even more satisfying. In an uncertain and fluctuating economic marketplace, it is that kind of success that keeps me going.