At the end of November, downtown Kalispell will turn the page to a new chapter. And the words will be gone.
After 42 years, Books West is closing its doors. As one of the few remaining independent bookstores in the valley, it’s a blow to those who still believe a book purchased from your neighbor is more satisfying than one bought from strangers on the Internet. Along with a smattering of used and niche bookstores, there will now only be one independent distributor left in the valley selling new titles, Bookworks in Whitefish.
Jo Ann Jensen, owner of Books West for the past 30 years, said she has received numerous letters and phone calls from lamenting customers. The last day for her shop is Nov. 30.
“They realize it is a loss,” Jensen said. “They’ll miss it and so will I. It was a very enjoyable job.”
When Jensen bought Books West in 1979 after working there as an employee for eight years, the store was located in a section of the Kalispell Grand Hotel lobby. At the time, downtown was a bustling center for retail, food and culture. Those earliest years, into the mid-80s, were bountiful times for Jensen.
In 1989, Jensen moved the business to the other side of Main Street on the corner of First Street, where it is still located today. The 1990s and early 2000s brought sustained population growth in the region, which brought a rush of commercial development.
The little shop on the corner felt the strain. Loyal customers were still plentiful, but the masses of new residents and tourists increasingly headed to the box stores on the north side of town. Jensen points out that books, in varying quantities, are available at almost any box store.
“Traffic patterns changed,” Jensen said. “It all goes north. People don’t even know we’re here.”
Jensen’s story is familiar. Independent bookstores are closing down across the nation, a downfall largely attributed to chain stores and online booksellers.
“We’re just beginning to see the crash,” Jensen said.
Cheryl Watkins, owner of Whitefish’s Bookworks, acknowledges her role as the last store standing in the Flathead. Respected businesses such as Blacktail Mountain Books in Kalispell and Bad Rock Books in Columbia Falls are chugging along, but they sell only used books. Watkins, as owner of the only new title distributor, said she will continue to do her best to compete with box stores, supermarkets and the Internet.
But since she took over the business in 1996, it has been a challenge to make a profit. Bookworks was started in 1972 by Mary Pat Love.
“Just about the time I bought it, in came the big box stores and Amazon, and Wal-Mart came to (Kalispell),” Watkins said. “Now every grocery store, everywhere you go, there’s discounted books.”
Similar to Books West, Watkins said her business has long relied on loyal customers. Even in the touristy town of Whitefish, Watkins said it’s the locals who keep her shop afloat. She offers discount cards and other special packages to stay competitive.
“You couldn’t ask for more loyal people than you have in Whitefish,” Watkins said.
Jensen has been referring customers to Watkins if she doesn’t have what they need. She has quit making new orders. Remaining inventory is discounted by 50 percent.
With the departure of Books West, the heart of Kalispell is losing one of its pillars. It is one of only several businesses that have been downtown for multiple decades, including Rocky Mountain Outfitter, Wheeler Jewelry, the Western Outdoor Store, Wheaton’s and Flowers by Hansen.
Jensen, who has watched empty storefronts pop up all around her, wishes the list were longer.
“I know you can’t go back,” she said, “but it would have been nice to preserve what we had.”
But, with retirement upon her, Jensen tries to spend her time thinking about the future.
“Everybody asks, ‘What are you going to do when you retire?’” Jensen said. “Anything I want. And I’m going to do a lot of reading.”
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