Perusing the classics

How are western Montana’s small independent booksellers elbowing aside the giants?


Stepping into a bookstore—a real bookstore, not one of the many clones that break out like diaper rash in Every Mall, USA—is like stepping into a river: You never enter the same bookstore twice. Around every corner lies the infinite potential of imagination, and with each passing day its shape and contour changes with the ebb and flow of fresh ideas. For those of us whose lives have been irrevocably altered by the discovery of a wondrous new book—or a book that is simply new to us—there are few acts as existential as deciding which physical or psychological landscape to explore next.

Thankfully, Missoula and its environs are blessed with an abundance of quality independent booksellers—from The Book Exchange to Chapter One in Hamilton, to the Bird’s Nest on North Higgins—and each continues to carve out its own unique niche and character. Whether you prefer your books’ spines unblemished or pre-softened, your pages virgin or sketched with the musings of others, one of these bookstores is bound to suit your particular taste and style.

In this day and age of mass marketing, retail redundancy and global homogeneity, the independent bookseller stands as one of the few remaining outlets for individuality. Clearly, theirs is no easy business, a profession chosen less for its monetary appeal than for other, less tangible rewards. So forgive us this week if we unabashedly blow their horn. We think they deserve the attention.

Chapter One: On not getting malled

The owners of Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton, Russ Lawrence and Jean Mathews, have been a Main Street institution for more than 15 years, and it is perhaps because of their omnipresent togetherness that they have become known as RussandJean, much the same way Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are known, simply, as LewisandClark.

Like the Corps of Discovery, Chapter One has faced its own obstacles. But while the Corps merely suffered marauding grizzly bears and privation, Chapter One faced down a more insidious threat in the corporate mauling or, rather, malling of America.

If business acumen went hand-in-hand with a passion for books, then independent booksellers like Chapter One would never have had to get their hands dirty in the brutal business of competition.

But brutal competition is the business of America, and if you want to play with the big boys—while staying firmly planted on Main Street—you’re going to have to play by their rules. And if you’re aggressive enough, you can make them play by yours, too.

Bookselling is not as genteel a business as it may appear from the browsing side of the checkout counter. Sadly, gone are the days when an independent bookseller like Sylvia Beach, who owned the famed Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris of the 1920s, could afford to nurse a talent like James Joyce through the publication of Ulysses.

Independent booksellers today can only wish for a Joyce, a Hemingway or a Fitzgerald to come around, hat in hand, looking for support while working on the great American novel. More likely, they’re too busy keeping Barnes and Noble at bay, or waiting for to spend its way into virtual oblivion.

In the recent past—Lawrence doesn’t remember precisely when, since time flies when you’re engrossed in a good book—chain bookstores began making serious inroads into the cozy little world the independents had carved out for themselves. Book publishers responded by giving good deals—some say outrageous deals—to the bookseller who could buy in bulk for hundreds of stores across the country. The independents dropped off the publishing radar so quickly that their market share fell by about 20 percent in the 1990s, says Lawrence.

What some book store owners didn’t comprehend about the world of corporate book selling is that big chains and could offer big discounts at the expense of profits. “Barnes and Noble would stock 100,000 books but two-thirds are wallpaper. What they’re really selling is Grisham, Danielle Steele,” and other currently popular titles.

So a few years ago—again, the dates are fuzzy—an independent booksellers’ organization called Book Sense came into being. Originating in California, the program went national when the American Booksellers Association bought the right to the Book Sense name.

Essentially, the organization gives its 1,400 or so independent bookstores the same buying clout and outrageous deals previously enjoyed only by the chains. Each participating bookstore also accepts Book Sense gift certificates bought at any other participating bookstore. And the independents get tons of advance book copies for review. The one requirement for joining Book Sense: You’ve got to have bricks and mortar. A virtual address won’t get you in the door.

“Where Chapter One would never have shown up on Random House’s radar, suddenly there are 1,400 Chapter Ones,” says Lawrence.

At last month’s American Booksellers Association convention, independent bookstore owners were seen sporting buttons, saying (in a paraphrased line from “When Harry Met Sally”): “I’ll have what they’re having.” In this case, what the independents wanted was what the chains were having—outrageous deals. “Suddenly (the publishers) got it,” Lawrence says. “The important thing is they’re taking the independent bookstores seriously.”

Likewise, the chains are attempting to emulate the independents by creating, or recreating, the independents’ ambience: the staff book picks, the latte stands, the Main Street feel of a good mom and pop shop where the clerks know their clients. What they can’t quite copy, however, is the in-store hubbub of neighbor greeting neighbor that draws Lawrence out of his back-store office to engage in conversations that are sometimes only marginally about books.

“While they stole our ambience, we stole their business savvy,” says Lawrence.

Another benefit to the American Booksellers Association Book Sense program, says Lawrence, is that it promotes community. “The ABA identifies preserving Main Street in the face of the malling of America.” That requires educating customer about why it’s important to support independently owned businesses, says Lawrence, if we want to keep from becoming a completely homogeneous landscape from coast to coast.

Still, millions of Americans don’t know Main Street. They know malls, where they shop the familiar, big-name stores, “and Amazon is still the 2,000-pound gorilla.”

Despite such formidable odds, Lawrence detects the stirring of a backlash against mall culture. He senses that the playing field is starting to level. A fellow independent bookseller in Washington state not long ago sent out a press release celebrating the fact that he made $140 million more than Amazon. Amazon spent $140 million more than it made, and the Washington bookseller broke even. It was a cause for optimism.

Lawrence says he can compete with any booksellers who don’t have $140 million to spend on promotions every year.

“Now that the playing field is more level, I’m not afraid of going head-to-head. I do think the independents who remained after the shake-out of the last five years are much stronger stores,” says Lawrence. “But the passion is still for the books, not the business.”

Waxing poetics at Quarter Moon Books

It comes as little surprise to learn that Jeff Nelson’s inspiration for opening his own used bookstore came straight from the title of a book.

The funny thing is, he nearly ended up selling Volvos.

Several years back while shopping around for a new way to make a living, Nelson was browsing the business stacks in the Seattle Public Library to learn about how to buy and sell used cars. Then he came across a title that spoke to him: “The Complete Guide to Opening a Used Bookstore.”

Like most bookstore owners, Nelson had whiled away a good part of his younger years in used bookstores and coffeehouses, but had never given much thought to opening one himself. Except for a one-man landscaping business he had started in his twenties back in Boulder, Colo., Nelson’s first stab at being a small business owner came when he opened Quarter Moon Books on Main Street in Hamilton. One year later, Nelson packed up his volumes and moved his shop to its current location at 1221 Helen Avenue in Missoula.

The significance of his address is not lost on many folks in Missoula, who remember that landmark as the site of Freddy’s Feed and Read, Missoula’s once-popular café and counterculture bookstore. Nelson admits that at times filling Freddy’s shoes can be a mixed blessing.

“I’ve looked at it from the very beginning as a benefit. If I were a Starbuck’s or something that your typical Freddy’s patron had something against, it’d tough,” says Nelson. “But I look it as an asset. Freddy’s was an institution for 25 years. But I don’t feel like I have to live up to what Freddy’s was, because it’s a different thing than Freddy’s.”

That said, being off Main Street—either in Hamilton or Missoula—has been a difficult transition for Nelson, and he isn’t afraid to confess that making ends meet is a struggle. Although one might assume that a bookstore located only a block away from the University of Montana would be virtually guaranteed customers, when most students left for the summer, so did most of his business. Since the spring, Nelson has seen his sales drop off by about 75 percent.

Nevertheless, Nelson remains optimistic that things will pick up once the students return next month. In the meantime, he’s relying on Internet sales—which currently account for 10 to 20 percent of Quarter Moon’s business—to carry him through the slow summer months. Nelson is also talking about sharing his space with a local coffeehouse or bakery, though those plans are still in the works.

And, obeying the Darwinian laws that govern all independent booksellers, Nelson keeps himself busy carving out a unique niche for his business. Unlike some bookstores, Quarter Moon Books sells used books only, oftentimes acquiring titles that the more mainstream dealers would pass up.

“I’m willing to sit on something that’s really obscure but interesting for a long time,” Nelson explains. “It just lights the hell out of me when somebody comes in and says, ‘Oh, my God! I’ve been looking for this for 10 years. And there it is.’”

Likewise, Nelson says that he only buys books that are in reasonably good condition. “Otherwise,” he says, “it’s just another musty, dusty old bookstore with crap in it.”

On the flip side, while Nelson has an unquestionable love and appreciation for books, particularly nonfiction, he has little interest in acquiring rare, high-end collectible books, preferring to leave that niche to other stores like Bird’s Nest Bookstore (219 N. Higgins Avenue, Missoula).

“That’s not my passion,” says Nelson. “If I come across a few copies of “The Brother K” or “The River Why,” something that leaves the next day after it comes in, that almost makes me happier actually, than finding some rare first edition.”

It’s an attitude that also reflects Nelson’s own philosophy about why he sells books.

“I’ve always been poor myself. I don’t like to exclude people from being able to afford things by dealing in just high-end stuff.”

The same rule holds true for the way he prices books on the Internet. To Nelson, the object is to move books and keep the price reasonable for the average Missoula resident, a goal that he says is much easier for used booksellers to accomplish.

“The good thing about used books is that your range of stock is so much larger than it can be in a new bookstore, because there’s so much stuff that’s out of print,” says Nelson. “Your breadth is everything that’s ever been published.”

In the presence of Shakespeare & Co.

Seems like you need a pretty thick skin to run a small book shop these days. By the way some people react, you’d think Garth Whitson had opened up an emporium dealing in spats and corsets and other oddments of bygone days on the north end of Higgins Avenue.“It seems like the idea of a small bookstore has gone into obsolescence within the past 15 years,” Whitson explains, “I’ve got people coming in here who didn’t even know that this kind of thing existed anymore—it’s almost an anachronism. I get a lot of this: How can you be here? How can you compete? What are you doing? If it isn’t a glass-front corporate bookstore, some people have no idea what they’re looking at. It can’t be legit, somehow.”

It’s a sobering footnote to modern consumerism that not only do small, friendly stores often get overlooked and neglected in favor of huge chain operations clogging the new business arteries on the edge of town, even when people do notice a small business for the first time—often quite by accident, it seems—their initial reaction falls somewhere between incredulity and mild scorn. Books? Here? You’ve got to be kidding!

“Or they at least think I have to be dealing in used books,” Whitson continues, “A dusty little bookshop. That’s another thing I’ve had to try and overcome—the idea that I’m a used bookseller.”

To be fair, though, the laid-back atmosphere of Shakespeare & Co. might come as a shock to the system of anyone already fully mesmerized by anonymous megastore consumerism. For one thing, it’s impossible to walk into the store without immediately meeting its owner, the soft-spoken Whitson, whose desk divides the space into a front vestibule area and a larger back area with a low wooden stage at the far end. Most days, or at least every other, a brown shepherd mix named Josie spills lazily at his feet. A lot of people who cross the threshold of Shakespeare & Co. are immediately drawn to Josie, especially children, whose delight in the dog relaxes the feel of what might have begun as a rather awkward first-time visit to the store. Josie helps break the consumer trance—you’ve seen it—that cloudy, glazed-over look that people get when they’re trolling for something to consummate the ritual courtship of consumerism.

That first-visit look of bewilderment sometimes puts Whitson in an awkward position. To greet or not to greet—it’s one of many questions.

“People will come to the door and I’ll say ‘hi,’ and they’ll turn around and leave,” Whitson chuckles, “And I’ll think, God, I shouldn’t do that. I shouldn’t say ‘hi’ right away. They’re in that shopping daze and they don’t want to be interrupted. Certain shoppers, they don’t want that personal interaction.”

Shakespeare & Co. began life as Garth’s Books, originally a one-room office lined with books in the old Warehouse Mall, and before that naturally as an inkling in the mind of its owner, who worked as a computer programmer for nine years before getting into bookselling at the now-defunct Freddy’s Feed & Read. Garth’s Books moved into its present location in July of 1999 and a change of name followed last December. The new name puts Whitson’s business in the esteemed company of the original Parisian institution and a handful of other bookstores currently DBA Shakespeare & Co. worldwide.

Whitson hesitates to discuss his time at the moribund Freddy’s, except to say he learned that a business runs the risk of spreading itself too thin if it tries to be too many things to too many people. Whitson is in business to sell books. After some deliberation, he even opted not to set up a coffee corner. He does however, host frequent concerts, readings, and a weekly open mic on the low stage built into the back of the store. Every month, the work of a new artist decks the open stretches of the long white walls.

“I don’t think of it in terms of specialization, at least consciously,” Whitson says, “Or maybe I’m so inside the thing that I really can’t see what my specialty is, if I have one. I try not to restrict myself in terms of what I’ll do here, what I’ll carry—I try to have as much complexity and diversity and variety of things going on as I can. I like this idea that I’ve been able to incorporate art, music and books into this small space and make it all work so far. I think each area reinforces the other areas.”

Whitson dismisses the suggestion that taking on too many extras might some day sap his energy—much less confuse or dilute his purpose for being in business.

“I think the books are 85 percent of it—they pay the rent, for sure. I was interested in having a performance space, and the inspiration for that was [unofficial Montana Poet Laureate] Ed Lahey’s poetry reading, which drew a big crowd. Something about Lahey’s performance really crystallized the idea that this space could work that way, and I suddenly realized a lot more about what a bookstore could potentially be. Just from that one day, from that one occasion.”

“I wanted it to work for writers and musicians, too,” Whitson continues. “Your question, though—this is a bookstore. I just don’t see a reason why a bookstore has to be restricted to just selling books. Space is at a premium in this town, and if you can do something cool with the space you have and promote the store and give artists and musicians a chance to do what they do, then so much the better.”

Fact & Fiction: Nurturing the artists within

When Barnes & Noble planted a store on north Reserve street in August of 1996, Barbara Theroux, proprietor of the independent Fact & Fiction bookstore, didn’t go looking for a Chicken Little suit to wear. Despite a nationwide lament from the literati proclaiming the imminent demise of the small bookseller in the face “big-box” chains like B & N, Borders and Books-A-Million, Fact & Fiction is still alive and doing quite well.

“I never perceived them [B & N] as the big bad wolf,” says Theroux at a small table in the back of her store at 220 N. Higgins Ave. Theroux knew that trying to take on the big store by matching it discount-for-discount would be an exercise in futility, given the advantage her competitors had in volume purchasing. Instead, she decided to stay the course and continue to execute the vision that she founded the store on back in 1986. “I just felt that we needed to stay consistent and do what we do,” she says.

What she does at Fact & Fiction, and can do better than the chain bookstores, is tap into the monster vein of literary talent that runs through Missoula and the surrounding areas. If a writer has any connection to the Garden City at all, you can bet that writer has at the very least read and/or signed his or her work at F & F. More likely, the writer will have developed a working relationship with Theroux, who has become known as a sort of den mother for local literary talent.

As Theroux ticks off the names of some of the regional luminaries to read at her store—Sherman Alexie, David James Duncan, Jim Welch, Terry Tempest Williams—she recalls the first time Fact & Fiction hosted a reading from best-selling author James Lee Burke.

“It was in ’87 or ’88, for Neon Rain” she says, “and it was one of those really nice Missoula evenings, when people are reluctant to come inside. Thirty or 40 people showed up, though, and we sold about 25 copies of the book.” Burke will be reading at the store on July 17th and, reflecting his recent surge in popularity, Theroux expects to sell roughly 200 hardbound copies of Burke’s latest acclaimed book, Bitterroot.

Though Theroux appreciates the ascension of local writers to national prominence—and certainly appreciates the loyalty they show when coming back to read at her store—she truly delights in helping young, budding authors. A case in point is Claire Davis, whose debut book, Winter Range, has been well-received critically. Davis worked at F & F for several years while attending the University of Montana.

“She was a good book seller and she is a good friend,” says Theroux of Davis, “and it was neat to see when a bidding war developed for her manuscript. She asked me for advice and I told her to go with her gut instinct, the editor she liked the most.”

Theroux provides local writers with more than just moral support. Besides offering her store for their readings, Theroux serves as liaison between writers and serious book collectors, who covet first-edition, signed copies. A recent afternoon found Jon Jackson, author of the highly acclaimed Fang Mulheisen detective series, strolling through the store. “Hey Barbara, what do you need?” asks Jackson. “Let’s see,” she says, looking through some notes. “He wants a signed Die Hard” she says, explaining that a collector, to whom Theroux had recently introduced Jackson’s work, had requested the item.

For Jackson, the relationship he has with a store like Fact & Fiction could never be duplicated by a big chain store.

“Barnes & Noble don’t know I exist,” says Jackson. “I’ve called them up and asked if they had a book of mine. The clerk couldn’t find anything.”

Theroux and Jackson have taken their symbiotic relationship one step further; she now ships orders for books that Jackson receives on his web site. And Theroux is helping Jackson with another problem encountered by writers, that of having their books put on the “remainder” list—that is, those sold at cut rates—if they haven’t been sold in a period of time determined by the publisher. If there’s a small enough number of books left, Jackson buys them up and then re-sells them to Theroux, who then sells them—often at a discount—to the public.

Theroux has taken some steps to broaden her store’s reach in the shadow of the big boxes, however. Her web site puts Fact & Fiction at the fingertips of book lovers everywhere, and she too has joined Book Sense.

Mostly, though, Theroux relies on the ingrained love and extensive knowledge of books and authors that she and her staff hold to keep book shoppers coming back for more.

“The beauty of Missoula is that people are price conscious, “ says Theroux, “but they are also community conscious. They recognize the value of what we do, and they support us for that.”

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