Good Company at Bad Rock Books

Community pitches in to help save decades-old bookstore in Columbia Falls

By Maggie Dresser
Cindy Ritter, owner of Bad Rock Books in Columbia Falls, holds one of her feline assistants, Sweet Pete, on Oct. 28, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On March 18, Cindy Ritter, owner of Bad Rock Books, heard a funny sound coming from the front of her store in Columbia Falls. She called the city, and after somebody inspected it, she was informed there was a leak in her waterline.

Ritter turned the water off and shut down the store for 10 weeks as the state entered a lockdown amid the pandemic while she was simultaneously dealing with a family emergency. After finally making calls for repair quotes months later, she couldn’t find anybody who would work on it.

Once Ritter found a willing company, the final quote was $14,000, a steep price tag for a business that doesn’t generate enough revenue to pay its owner.

After locals heard about Ritter’s predicament, the Montana Women Writers group came to the rescue and set up a GoFundMe page. Bad Rock Books got its first donation on Sept. 30, and the goal was reached within two days.

“Our community just blows my mind,” Ritter said. “I just feel so loved and thankful that people appreciate the book and want to support this place.”

Ritter started working at Bad Rock Books in 2011 after one of her Whistle Stop Café regulars and the bookstore’s owner, Carole Rocks, asked if she wanted to help at the store.

“I had just known her from pouring her coffee and stuff,” Ritter said. “Through the years, she became my best friend.”

After a cancer diagnosis, Rocks needed extra help at Bad Rock Books. Ritter started working a few days a week but eventually did the bulk of the work while taking her friend to doctor appointments for chemotherapy and radiation. After Rocks’ death in December of 2016, she left Ritter the store.

“It was a big deal,” Ritter said. “It was quite a gift for me, but to our community, too. It’s her legacy. She built this place and it is largely the way she left it.”

Since Rocks opened the store in 1997, Ritter says it hasn’t changed much over the years, with the exception of a few feline additions. Rocks and Ritter found Miss Bailey Paige Dickens, the store’s first kitty, sitting in the window well next door during the season’s first winter storm. They brought her inside and she never left.

Next came Miss Poe, a disabled cat with a hole in her heart and bad knees. Glacier Animal Hospital asked Rocks and Ritter if they would take her, offering free health care for the rest of her life. Despite her short life expectancy, she still wanders the bookstore eight years later. About a year ago came the arrival of Sweet Pete, an orange longhaired cat providing excellent customer service.

“He runs up to greet people,” Ritter said. “It’s their job. They take it very seriously. That and holding down boxes.”

Aside from the store kitties, Ritter relies volunteers to help. But she only has four right now, because many of them are susceptible to COVID-19. The store doesn’t make enough money to employ anybody, and Ritter doesn’t even pay herself. When Rocks opened back in the 1990s, she ran it as a hobby business and supplemented costs out of her own pocket.

So when Ritter received the $14,000 quote for the waterline, she was worried. It wasn’t until the community stepped up to cover the cost that she realized the store could be saved. But she says there’s a chance that repairs won’t be possible because the ground could be too rocky underneath the building for repairs.

“I am so incredibly grateful that people support us in the way they do,” Ritter said. “People are passionate about books and it’s important for people to read. I don’t know how I could ever repay people for their kindness.”

Bad Rock Books is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and is located at 615 Nucleus Ave., Columbia Falls, MT 59912.

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