As the August 11 tornado in Salt Lake City spun through neighboring streets, the Dixieland band at the 70th anniversary celebration of Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore, played on. According to current manager Tony Weller, "Suddenly all the lights went out, we didn't know what had happened."

Many of the celebrating guests suspected a lightning strike. After all, attendance had been light because of foul, rainy weather all morning, and by the time the party was in full swing, around noon, it was decidedly stormy. Tony Weller called the power company to find out when power would be restored and heard a recorded message: "There has been a tornado. We cannot tell when power will be restored."

"We were all flabbergasted," Weller told PW. "This is not an area that gets tornad s. It was a total fluke."

The Dixieland band continued to play and some of the devoted friends of the store continued to dance in the dark on the balcony of the three-story building at 254 South Main St., the store's location since 1961. Others left the celebration quickly to check on their families' welfare.

The tornado touched down about a mile away from the store at 12:30 p.m. That's when the store lost its electricity and phones. An auxiliary power source kept the phones and minimal lighting in operation for two hours. Customers making purchases were given handwritten receipts as other booksellers held flashlights to illuminate the bill of sale. When the phones went dead at 3 p.m., it was decided to close the store for the day.

Founded by Gus Weller as the Zion Bookstore in 1929, the store sold used Mormon literature. After a decade, the shop moved to a larger location, having grown to include general new and used books. When Gus's son Sam took over in 1946, the growing business specialized in Western Americana and literature as well as remaining, as it d s to this day, a major outlet for material relating to the Church of Latter-day Saints.

Lila Nelson began working at the store in 1950 and became a central figure in the store's history as Sam's wife and partner. Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore, as the store was then known, became one of the largest bookstores in the region, with a comprehensive selection including rare and out-of-print books.

When Sam and Lila's son Tony took over in 1997, the bookstore was already known as "Salt Lake City's Original Superstore," a long-established landmark for serious bibliophiles as well as a major attraction for many Salt Lake City visitors.

Tony Weller currently oversees a staff of 35 employees, nearly half of them with more than 10 years of bookselling experience at the store. Each one specializes in specific areas of the store's 30,000 square feet of books. "We have a selection that attracts everyone, from old-line Mormons who come in trailing several wives, to Goth teenagers," Tony Weller told PW. The religion department g s far beyond Mormon books. Tony Weller, himself a Zen Buddhist, found his first books on the subject in the bookstore. Current sales hover about equally between new and used books.

When the city began construction of a light-rail track on Main Street, traffic was diverted for an entire year between early 1998 and last spring. This took a heavy toll on many businesses in the area, even causing some to close. Because of the stress on the main store's business, a Weller's branch that had opened in 1987 in the suburb of Sandy was closed this past February. Yet Sam Weller's has survived and looks forward to the operation of the light-rail, which should bring more foot traffic to the downtown area.

The opening of the city's first Barnes & Noble in the early 1990s also took a large toll on sales. Recent sales are at an even keel, though not at the level of the early '90s. "But then, what independent's business is?" asked Tony. "But this is more than just a business for all of us."

Tony Weller nurtures what he calls a friendship with NPR station KCPW and makes sure that books mentioned on locally aired programs are prominently displayed. He also sees that Sam Weller's "donates when requested" to area literacy programs, and offers services and discounts to librarians. Sam Weller's offers free delivery in Salt Lake City on orders of $20 or more. Utah historians, local writers and Mormon Church leaders count the store as a valuable community resource.

This community spirit was celebrated at a private party for about 50 friends of the store held on Saturday night following the public celebration interrupted by the tornado. Authors, booksellers, historians and former employees came from as far away as California and Arizona to honor Sam and Lila. Essays about the store from guests and other writers whose lives were touched by Sam Weller and his bookstore were collected into a commemorative chapbook, which is available from the store.