Flathead’s Bookstores Hang on Through Changing Times

By Beacon Staff

In an age when many people prefer to research the Lewis and Clark Expedition on Wikipedia rather than thumb through 500 pages of “Undaunted Courage,” Flathead’s independent bookstore owners tenaciously cling to one enduring belief: There will always be enough people who want the whole reading experience – ink stains on the fingers, dust on the spine and books on the shelf.

And with Borders looming on U.S. 93, they must also believe there will always be enough people who want to shop local. But it’s not easy.

“I doubt if any of us are doing well,” said Cheryl Watkins, owner of Bookworks in Whitefish. “But we do have a really good bunch of people that keep us going.”

Flathead County has two major independent bookstores that sell only new books: Bookworks and Books West in Kalispell. Others, bookstore owners say, must fulfill a specific niche, like Kalispell’s Twice is Nice, which caters to home schooling needs or Bigfork’s Bay Books, which primarily focuses on Western literature. Some rely on used books. Used bookstores, they say, don’t compete with chains because they offer a different product.

“I actually send customers to Borders,” said Jim Handcock, the owner of Kalispell’s Blacktail Mountain Books. “The people from the Borders store send customers here. We complement each other.”

Handcock has operated Blacktail Mountain Books since 1977. For the first two years he was in the basement of the Grand Hotel. He said he benefits from Borders because people buy new books there and then trade them in at Blacktail when they’re finished. Carol Rocks, owner of Bad Rock Books in Columbia Falls, says the same thing about her used bookstore. But, Handcock said, used bookstores – with or without competition from chain stores – don’t make much money.

“You got to like the books and the people more than the dollars,” he said. “Mostly I’m a book addict and I deal with book addicts.”

“I’m like an alcoholic bartender,” he added. “Whatever comes in my kitchen I go after.”

But many bookstores across the country are struggling, if not shutting down.

The number of independent bookstores nationally has declined at a rapid pace in recent years, according to the American Booksellers Association. There are several main reasons. One is that Americans simply read less, according to recent studies. Another is the Internet – people buy more books online and they use quick-hitting information options like Wikipedia instead of books. Many independents like Blacktail, however, also sell their books online and therefore use the Internet to their advantage. There are also concerns over the environmental impact of using so much paper.

Perhaps the most difficult obstacle for many independents is the prevalence of chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble, which can sell books at a discount, whereas an independent store generally can’t afford to do so. Also, Watkins said, there is a perception that chains have a much larger selection, which isn’t necessarily true.

“The big bookstores hurt us because people see them as having so much more,” Watkins said. “Personally, in this bookstore, book for book, we can probably compete with Borders down the road and we do special orders. But Borders definitely has hurt us.”

Twice is Nice’s owner Jeanie Sappington has found a niche market by selling home school and Christian-oriented books. Not to mention, the store is a way to keep most of her eight home schooled kids busy. Sappington and her kids that aren’t still crawling operate the bookstore out of their house on Third Avenue East. Even Alan, 6 years old, makes sure the books are straight and presentable at all times. The store’s specialized selection and family effort have allowed Twice is Nice to stay open for two years, whereas Handcock says so many other bookstores have come and gone in the past two decades he’s had trouble keeping track of them.

Rocks said a bookstore operates on the principle that people, in the end, love books. She says she uses the Internet just like anybody else, but not for everything. She always finds a use for books and she thinks enough other people do as well.

“If you get your knowledge through a video screen or a computer screen, then I guess that’s okay,” Rocks said. “A lot of people who buy books and read books don’t necessarily always want that. They want to be able to have it in their hot little hands.”

“We’re surviving the best way we can – us booksellers are,” she added.

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