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The end of an era … and start of a new one

UPDATE, 2018
We are back in Red Lodge, but not with a bookstore. Phoenix Pearl Tea is our tea and game business on Broadway, right next door to where Red Lodge Books and Tea was located. Come see us, or order your favorite teas online!

End of an era header

The bookstore Kathy and I purchased in 2001 is closing. For the first time in thirty years, the town of Red Lodge will be without a bookstore. I feel sad and guilty about it, but I also feel giddy and excited about what’s coming. If ever there was a personification of “mixed emotions,” it’s me. Right now.

A group about an hour away in Billings has purchased all of the assets of Red Lodge Books & Tea and hired me to be the General Manager and create a new store for them.

When we bought our store from my friend Randy Tracy, it was a small store smack in the middle of downtown Red Lodge, Montana, right across the street from the iconic Red Lodge Café. It was called the Broadway Bookstore, although I changed the name when I discovered that (a) Broadway Books is trademarked by Random House, and (b) there was an “adult” bookstore called Broadway Books & Videos just an hour away.

When I took over the store, it was mostly used books, and the new books were predominantly local history and guidebooks. Over the next few years, we shifted the focus to be more about new books, finally eliminating the used books entirely when the library a few blocks away started doing monthly used book sales (it’s hard to compete with 25 cent books). We tried many experiments, some of which succeeded wildly (like our tea bar), and some of which flopped horribly (like greeting cards).

The store has been a family affair. I’ve been there full-time and Kathy’s been there part-time for as long as we’ve owned it. Both of our kids have worked at the store (one is still there, as the Tea Bar Manager). When we were publishing the Red Lodge Local Rag, the office was in the back of the bookstore. When the Local Rag book came out last winter, it launched at the bookstore. Our grandson is as comfortable in the store as he is at our house.

Perhaps the greatest thing about the fifteen years we’ve spent running Red Lodge Books & Tea is the people we’ve gotten to meet. The book trade is simply filled with great people, and most of them are eager to share what they know. I’ve learned from other bookstores in Montana, like Chapter One, Fact & Fiction, Country Bookshelf, Montana Book & Toy Company, Thomas Books, Vargo’s Books & Jazz, and Barjon’s Books. I’ve met bookstore owners and booksellers at book conferences all over the West, and they’ve been helpful and friendly.

And then there are the authors.

We’ve had self-published local authors and New York Times bestselling authors, locals and authors from thousands of miles away. We’ve had events where nobody showed up, events so big we had to move them to the library, and events even bigger than that which we had to hold at the Elks. We’ve had events with police protection, parties with free beer & wine, cookbook signings with free food, and midnight Harry Potter parties with lines out the door and down the sidewalk. You want to know where I got a lot of the material for my new book about book signings? Right here!

The toughest part of this whole deal is my feelings that I’m abandoning Red Lodge. For almost fifteen years, Kathy & I have been active parts of the community. Between us, we’ve served on the boards of the Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Merchants Association, Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary, Red Lodge Festival of Nations, Convention & Visitors Bureau, Red Lodge Proud & Beautiful, and Beartooth Elks Lodge. We’ve worked on City committees, the Red Lodge Branding Initiative, and the Christmas Stroll. We’ve sponsored events all over town, and I’ve emceed events all over town. But most of all, we’ve given Red Lodge a place to buy books, hang out with other book lovers, meet authors, and have a great cup of tea. I’m going to miss that.

Kathy’s staying active in many of those downtown groups, but for the next year while I’m getting that co-op up and running in Billings, I won’t be able to. I’m not moving, but I’m not quite staying here, either.

Closing Red Lodge Books & Tea is, indeed, the end of an era. It’s been a good era. And I think the new era is going to be a good one, too. We’ll never be able to fill the gap that Susan Thomas left behind when she retired and closed up Thomas Books, but we’ll do our best to build a thriving bookstore and literary hub right in the middle of downtown Billings. It’s a big challenge, and I’m looking forward to it.

Selling books in the modern era

When I was growing up, we did two types of shopping. Commodity items came from department stores like Sears, and specialty items came from specialty stores. To this day, if I walk into a book store, I expect to encounter a book expert behind the desk, who can help me find what I want. If I walk into a hardware store, I expect someone who can help me to fix a problem with my sink. If I walk into a feed store, I expect someone who knows the difference between red oat hay and alfalfa hay. In a department store, I have no such expectation.

Most of us who still have independent bookstores have survived because we know our products. When someone comes in my store looking for that mystery by a Montana author with a detective that works in a topless bar, we can find it. Same thing if they’re looking for last month’s bestseller with the pink cover, that long poem about Hell by the Italian dude, or a good book about building tree houses. That skill alone, however, will not allow indie bookstores to survive much longer.

The Wal*Mart generation has grown used to walking into stores and finding employees who know nothing about the products they sell. When they go shopping in brick & mortar stores, they’re either browsing randomly, or they’ve researched what they want. To me, it’s worth paying retail if I can engage with someone who knows what they’re talking about and get tailored recommendations. To the current generation, it’s not.

So we face a dilemma. We can try to cut our costs and compete on price; we can specialize, go high-end, and develop a reputation people will seek out; or we can diversify.

Option 1 seems on its face to be a disaster. With rents and wages up, we can’t possibly compete on price with Barnes & Noble, much less Costco. But there are stores out there that are making it work with used books, remainders, overstocks, and “scratch & dent” books. If you know what you’re doing and put in the time to build your stock well, you can even compete with the e-reader crowd. Why pay $10 for a new book on Kindle or iPad when you can buy a used copy for $3 and then sell it back to the store for $1 when you’re done reading it?

Option 2 (the “Nordstrom” option) works in larger communities where there’s a big customer base to draw from, but it’s getting harder and harder to pull off in small communities. The only way to make it successful is to specialize and build a stock that nobody else can match. This will require a great deal of time tracking down those small publishers and vanity-press books that don’t show up in book distributor databases — or even in Bowker’s Books in Print database.

Option 3 is an extension of the route most bookstores are already taking. I remember attending a bookseller conference five years ago where one of the panelists said every bookstore should have candles and wind chimes because they sell. Coffee shops in bookstores are so common they’re expected now. Book-related products like journals, calendars, and magazines have been bookstore mainstays for years.

It’s possible to combine options 2 and 3. A good example would be Barjon’s Books down the road from us in Billings. Their specialty is “alternative spiritual” books, and they stock it deep. Where my store has a shelf for pagan and earth-based religions, Barjon’s has a whole section. And they also stock everything from herbs to candles to tapestries to belly-dancing outfits. This approach has kept them alive and thriving since 1977.  Just don’t go there looking for a copy of Huckleberry Finn.

It’s taken us a little bit of time to settle on our direction. We’re keeping the “general bookstore” selections like bestsellers, thrillers, and Sudoku, but we’ve heavily tailored our stock to local themes and children’s nature/science. We still have a used fiction section, but it can’t compete in sales with our tea bar or cigars. The children’s books are augmented with educational and nature toys.

How are people taking this? For the most part, very well. A few customers have come in and declared that we’re obviously not a bookstore anymore because of “all this other crap” even though our book inventory is the highest it’s ever been. That’s a risk we took when we packed the shelves tighter to make room for tables and chairs. Our sales of tea (both bulk and served in-store) and cigars have more than compensated for the steady slide in new book sales over the last four years.

(The “all this other crap” comment amused me, because it was made by someone who was looking at the spinner rack of my Who Pooped in the Park? books, which has a selection of authentic Montana Turd Birds sitting on top of it.)

What will Red Lodge Books look like in another ten years? Who knows? Perhaps we’ll be selling kilts and swords. But if we continue to adapt with the times, try new things, and drop what doesn’t work, we’ll still be here.

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