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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!

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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.

The Billings Caledonian Pipes and Drums – Bagpipes in Montana!

The following is an article that I wrote for Magic City Magazine. It appears starting on page 39 of the March 2015 issue. Please visit their website, or if you live in the Billings, Montana area, pick up a copy of the magazine. It’s well worth the read! And if you’re interested in Scottish culture and kilts, you may want to peek at two of my other posts: The History of the Kilt and Kilts vs. Lederhosen. To see the article as it appeared in the magazine, including photos, you can scroll to the end of this post and click on the thumbnail pictures.

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One musical instrument has a dedicated word to describe its sound (“skirling”). One “instrument of war” caused a musician to be executed for treason just for playing it. One instrument is so iconic that it can call a specific country to mind by playing a single note.

That instrument is the Scottish bagpipes.

You don’t have to head for the Highlands to hear the skirling of the pipes, though. Although the sound of bagpipes echoing through Scotland’s misty moors in the gloaming is an experience you’ll never forget, you can hear that same sound much closer to home. The Billings Caledonian Pipes & Drums practice every Wednesday night at Billings West High School and offer free lessons in piping and drumming to anyone who is interested.

Despite being an icon of Scotland, the origin of this unique instrument may go back much farther. According to the Oxford History of Music, there is a bagpipe sculpture in the middle east from over 3,000 years ago, and it may have been the Roman empire that brought the pipes to Scotland.

In 122 AD, the Roman Emperor Hadrian had conquered much of the British Isles, but the Highlands of Scotland stopped him cold. Rather than continue the war, he built a 20-foot high ocean-to-ocean wall across Scotland to keep the Scots out of his empire. Modern Scots take quite a bit of pride in this, and Caledonia, the Latin name for the part of Scotland north of Hadrian’s wall, is now a romantic name for the whole country. This is why many pipe bands are called “Caledonians.”

By the 18th century, bagpipes had become as much a symbol of Scotland as the kilt. The pipes weren’t actually banned by the English when they put down the Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland, as many believe. In reality, the Act of Proscription of 1747 banned Highlanders from owning or bearing weapons, and from wearing “Highland clothes,” including tartans and kilts. But it did not mention bagpipes.

However, there was a bagpiper named James Reid who was captured and tried for high treason with a group of Scottish warriors that year. His defense was that he didn’t carry or use a weapon; all he did was play the pipes. The judge said that “a Highland regiment never marched without a piper…and therefore his bagpipe in the eyes of the law was an instrument of war.”

Reid became the only man ever executed for playing the bagpipes.

The Act of Proscription did drive many Scots from their country in what became known as the diaspora. Communities of displaced Scots cropped up all around the world. Many of the trappers and miners in early Montana were Scottish immigrants.

Bill Flockhart was one of the young men who left the shores of Caledonia in 1904 to seek a new life here. He found work in the mines around Red Lodge and became a part of the burgeoning Scottish community. After a time, Flockhart became concerned that new generations were losing interest in bagpipes. He took it upon himself to rectify that situation and began teaching anyone willing to learn. In 1963, a group of Flockhart’s students formed the Billings Caledonian Pipes & Drums.

Oscar Thompson, one of his students, still plays with the band. “I got interested by listening to the pipes when I was in junior high school and going to the Festival of Nations in Red Lodge,” he told us, “and ended up joining the band in the late 60s.” Thompson became pipe major (the musical director of the band) for a year or two by what he called an “unlucky draw.”

“No, I never intended on being the pipe major. I have more fun just piping,” he said with a laugh.

The band has had a number of pipe majors since, and Donell Small took over the position in 2003. Growth has been steady since that point, and the band now has 20 pipers, 5 pipe students, and 8 drummers.

“I got involved with the Caledonians in 1984,” Small says. “I had wanted to learn to play for a long time, having two Scottish grandmothers, but never got around to it.” One day, he just walked into a music store and asked them how he could learn to play bagpipes. They had no idea where to get bagpipes, but guided him to pipe major Jim Morrison (another of Flockhart’s students). Small showed up at the next practice and has been there ever since.

Bagpipes don’t exist in a vacuum, though. The band is, after all, the Caledonian Pipes & Drums. As much as the pipe major works behind the scenes to bring everything together, the drum major acts as the public face of the band, leading either with his drum or with an ornate baton known as the mace.

“Some drum majors refer to themselves as the ‘eye candy’ or the ‘peacock’ of the band,” said the Caledonians’ current drum major, Lee Stadtmiller. He likens all-volunteer bands like the Billings Caledonians to herding cats. “This isn’t a well-organized military band. Sometimes I’ll start off leading and turn around to see nobody there.”

If you are interested in learning the bagpipes, the band offers an excellent opportunity.

“Show up Wednesday night at practice and take the lessons,” Thompson advises. “It’s pretty tough to just start on your own. The band can get you off on the right foot and it makes learning much easier.”

Maureen Wallace, who has been a member for two years, concurs. “The band was instrumental in keeping me focused and giving me goals to shoot for. I could pipe when I joined, but they made me a piper.”

The costs can be somewhat daunting. A good set of new Highland pipes starts at about $1,300, and the outfit costs even more than that. But you can start out for much less. A high-quality practice instrument called a “chanter” costs under $100, and the band can loan you most of the rest when you’re starting out.

Billings Caledonian article contributor


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“Who Pooped in the Cascades” is a High Plains Book Award finalist!

This is exciting! The High Plains Book Awards has added a new category this year for children’s books, and Who Pooped in the Cascades? has been chosen as a finalist! The winners will be announced at the High Plains Book Festival in Billings, MT on October 25, 2014.

High Plains Book Awards logoThe High Plains Book Awards recognize regional authors and/or literary works which examine and reflect life on the High Plains. The High Plains region includes Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

This year, there are 11 categories:

  • Art & Photography
  • Children’s Book (written for readers under age 12)
  • Culinary
  • Fiction
  • First Book
  • Nonfiction
  • Poetry
  • Medicine & Science
  • Short Stories
  • Woman Writer
  • Young Adult (written for readers ages 12 to 18)

Who Pooped in the Cascades?

Who Pooped in the Cascades? is the 18th book in my “Who Pooped” series, which is published by Farcountry Press in Helena, MT. The series began in Yellowstone National Park. This latest book follows Michael and Emily and their friend, May, on a trip to the Cascade Mountain range in California, Oregon, and Washington. Michael tries to deal with his fear of mountain lions as Mom and Dad teach him and his sister about the wildlife in the area — without ever getting close enough to be scared. In their “close encounters of the poopy kind,” the family learns about a variety of animals, and readers will become familiar with their tracks and the droppings they leave behind (scats).

The illustrations in Who Pooped in the Cascades? are by Robert Rath from Bozeman, MT. He illustrated eleven other books in the series as well.

The other two finalists for best children’s book, Baba’s Babushka by Marion Mutala and Leaving Mr. Humphries by Alison Lohans, are from Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing in Regina, Saskatchewan.

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