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Here to stay: Montana’s independent bookstores redefine bookstore experience, again

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By Maria Munro-Schuster Explore Big Sky Contributor

For the past 15 years, independent bookstores have adopted a sink or swim attitude. For them, its been the roughest time for in recent book-sales history, provoked by the barrage of big box bookstores, e-readers and Amazon. This is notable in Montana, where Kalispell’s Book’s West said farewell in 2009 after 42 years of business.

While some indie owners were forced to close, others decided to fight back with the help of the “buy local” movement that allows communities to turn their gazes and wallets inward, making it clear that bigger isn’t always better.

With the recent closing of Vegas-style bargain buffet bookstores such as Borders, Montana’s 17 remaining indies are finding their feet again; slowly, but steadily.

In an industry due for good news, the American Bookseller’s Association recently reported an approximate 8 percent increase in independent bookstore sales in 2012 over the previous year.

But there is no time to sit back and read a good book. While some indie owners may have come into the business with a background in pure book lust and a desire to share that, for many others, this is not the one they envisioned when they got into the business.

Now that things have settled a bit, some owners are moving on from the preservation efforts. Ariana Paliobagis, owner of Bozeman’s Country Bookshelf – Montana’s largest independent bookstore – says it’s time to “get past just nostalgia for the bookstore, the idea that bookstores aren’t meaningful in and of themselves, that they are meaningful only for a past memory.”

Paliobagis and other Montana bookstore owners have had to redefine themselves in a way that meets the needs of their individual communities. There is no take-over-the-world business plan in place, and what works for one bookstore may not work for others.

Most owners are just listening.

Paliobagis says its necessary to have a “super-spongy mind. You need to let the community dictate what is important to [it] if you are going to be important to the community.”

Author readings (Terry Tempest Williams was recently at Elk River Books), lecture series, book clubs, traveling book sales (Country Bookshelf was at TEDx Bozeman recently selling the speakers’ suggested reads), and community collaborations are shaping these landscapes, taking the primary focus off book sales and onto community.

“We are starting to realize how important person-to-person meeting is, and people need a place to do this,” Paliobagis said. “Here we have Plato’s works next to Buddhist philosophy. We have all these ideas. We want that with people too.”

The Country Bookshelf hosted author Carter Niemeyer in 2011, who spoke on the highly contentious issue of the gray wolf population in the West. The audience consisted largely of ranchers and conservationists.

“To have all of these people in the same room, and to have a civil conversation and to have them listening to each other is a powerful thing,” Paliobagis said.

Similarly, co-owners Marc Beaudin and Andrea Peacock, describe Livingston’s budding Elk River Books as a public forum. Gone are the days, Beaudin says, of “those musty old dreary bookstores with stacks and stacks of things all over the floor, where you can’t find anything and you spend eight hours just to find the section. And the grumpy guy at the counter who doesn’t help you.”

Elk River, a curated treasure island of used books with a nod to regional writers, offers customers rare curiosities. Each book is hand picked by the owners and if you become a regular, they’re picked specifically with you in mind.

Andrea can name a few: “There is this little old lady who comes in, and she buys Western romance novels. They are like Harlequins, but there is a guy on the cover with a cowboy hat and no shirt on. Now when I am out looking for books, if I see a cowboy romance, I grab one.”

From the green velvet sofas of Elk River to the living room-like atmosphere of Country Bookshelf, each of Montana’s indies is a character worth your acquaintance, as are their owners.

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