Closing Time

Kalispell’s Mountain Aire Music hits the road

Question: Where do you go in the Flathead to find any Leonard Cohen album you could want for $9? Or how about a perfectly good used Supergrass album, 10 different Tom Waits discs, Pantera’s Cowboys from Hell, a VHS copy of The Big Lebowski and incense that’s not just pretty heady but “very heady”? For many in the Flathead Valley, the answer, for the past seven years, has been Mountain Aire Music in Kalispell, one of only two independent music stores in the area, and the only one where you’ll also find bumper stickers for sale questioning everything from computers to Republicans, and a U.S. flag with a peace sign where the stars are supposed to be. Mountain Aire has not only had its finger on the pulse of Kalispell’s music scene; it is the epicenter whence that pulse emanated.

But those days are nearly done.

On Tuesday, Aug. 31, as Latin band Cocinando played the final summer concert of the season at Kalispell’s Depot Park, Mountain Aire owner Pat Bailey publicly announced that he is closing up shop.

“This is my last show,” Bailey told the crowd of lawn-chair and blanket-toting residents. “It’s been a real pleasure to serve you.”

Meanwhile, a couple blocks away, Ursula DeStefano closes Mountain Aire–not for the last time, but that day is coming (on Sept. 30, in fact). DeStefano is expecting a child in December, and isn’t excited about finding a new job. “Until two days ago I had dreadlocks,” DeStefano says. “There aren’t a lot of jobs in a small town where you can be yourself.”

Aside from the Flathead losing a music store, it will also lose Bailey, who has booked and produced the Mountain Aire concert series at the KM Building theater, which has drawn top-notch folk acts over the years including Eliza Gilkyson and Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer. He’s also sponsored Picnic in the Park Concerts at Depot Park, including his Tuesday swan song show by Cocinando.

Outside of the cozy Second Street shop, Blake Webber, a recent high school graduate in Kalispell, and his friend Ryan McEwen, a senior, sum up the general reaction of Mountain Aire’s many patrons.

“That sucks,” Weber says.

“I’m bummed, man,” McEwen adds.

He’s not the only one. Browsing the aisles with a Jay Farrar album in hand, Bruce Guthrie, a 40-year-old Whitefish resident, overhears an Independent reporter talking to Bailey about the closure.

“I’m not sure where I’m going to buy my music now,” Guthrie says. “I’ll probably just buy directly from the artist whenever I can.”

Behind a counter cluttered with neither computer nor cash register (Bailey does business by hand), the proprietor discusses business. Bailey formerly owned five music stores in Ohio before selling them to retire to Kalispell. Now, he says, he’ll move Mountain Aire to the Blue Ridge Mountains border town of Bristol, partially in Tennessee and partially in Virginia. Bailey says he’s not exactly being put out of business, but that he sees unfavorable writing on the wall, written in “10 foot letters.”

“In the past year, the people of Kalispell have just abandoned downtown because there are new, shiny objects up on Highway 93,” Bailey says. “We took a 40 percent hit in November and December because Pier 1 and Borders and Target and all that opened. So, I stuck around to see if that would eventually balance out and people would come back. And some have. We’ve closed it down to about a 20 percent loss, but it seems to be a good time for me to say, ‘Well, that was good,’ and walk away from it, rather than being put out of business.”

Customer Guthrie says he’s not inclined to start shopping at the larger, corporate stores that supply music, because a smaller percentage of his money would stay in the valley.

“I want my money to stay here and be circulated in this economy and help support the community,” says Guthrie, who teaches at Flathead High School.

“Mountain Aire is an example of the broader philosophy of supporting locally owned businesses and staying away from the homogenization of America,” he says.

But Bailey says fighting that homogenization is a losing battle.

“I’m not bitter,” Bailey says. “I’m just sad that the Flathead Valley is going to allow this to turn into Anytown, USA, and that’s exactly what it’s going to be. You’re going to have two strips of corporate America. And I really didn’t see it coming. I thought that because we are so far off the freeway, it wouldn’t happen here. I also thought this was a more community-oriented situation where people wouldn’t fall for corporate America’s tricks. Of course, people not only fell for it, they jumped in feet first and said, ‘Woo-hoo!’”

Aside from the ongoing sprouting of big box stores along Highway 93, Bailey admits that the Internet has made things difficult for the entire music industry, including independent music sellers, because many young consumers now steal, or buy, music online.

“Unfortunately, there’s a whole generation that doesn’t see the value of owning a CD,” Bailey says. “To them, it’s just a silver disc that says ‘Sublime’ on it. They don’t even know what the names of the songs are. It’s like, ‘I like song 14.’ I think that’s strange.”

Though he might fit the age profile Bailey describes, customer Ryan McEwen seems to appreciate the value of an actual album. He walks out of Mountain Aire unwrapping a copy of Pink Floyd’s The Wall as his buddy Blake says, “I’d hate to support Wal-Mart or something like that. I’m all about the local stuff.”

Ryan agrees: “They’ve done a great job while they were here.”

“I don’t have many regrets,” Bailey says, as posters of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and John Prine look on. “I’m being driven out on one hand. But it’s also like transplanting a tree that is not doing so well, but is still a good, strong tree, and you know it’ll thrive in better soil.”

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