Stan Cohen looked at the last pallet of books in his warehouse last week and sighed.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do for the next 20 years,” he said.
He was more than half joking.
The creator of and motor behind Pictorial Histories Publishing Co. still has books to do, on the Klondike gold rush, on World War II in Alaska, on World Fairs 1851-1948, and more.
“I’ve got enough to keep me busy for years if I don’t run out of steam,” said Cohen, who’ll turn 80 next April.
Starting this week, he’ll be doing them out of his Missoula home rather than the office and warehouse on West Bickford that he’s had for the past 36 years.
“There’s not enough business here anymore in the winter to pay the rent,” he said. “The business has been going downhill for years, because of a lot of factors. I haven’t done anything new much and a lot of my military business has disappeared on me.”
People tell him the internet business killed him, but Cohen doesn’t fully swallow that.
“It hurt probably,” he said. “But Mountain Press is still in business. They keep pumping out books all the time.”
In the last weeks of August he sent most of his best-selling books the six blocks to Missoula’s other book publisher, Mountain Press Publishing Co. on South Third Street West.
The rest are boxed in storage units across the street. It’s an inventory that numbers some 360 titles and dates from a history of the Civil War in West Virginia published in the mid-1970s to the history of Missoula’s Snowbowl Ski Area that Cohen published last year.
He’s stopped taking orders through Barnes and Noble and says he doesn’t reply to Amazon emails any more. Those are the things he’ll leave up to Mountain Press.
“The single orders I can take care of myself for the time being,” Cohen said. “Think about it. I’ve been in business 41 years, so people from all over the country are still going to order through my email, which is where I get most of my business.”
Maybe six months, maybe a year down the road he’ll turn the whole operation over to Mountain Press.
An era is ending for a Missoula institution, said Mountain Press publisher John Rimel.
“But he’s not going to disappear. He’s going to keep his name and phone number and all that going for an unforeseen amount of time,” Rimel said.
“My hope is what this does is take off his plate all the backroom issues that he had to deal with that were actually preventing him from doing the things he does so well, which is get out there and research more books.”
Oh, where his research and publishing career have taken Stan Cohen.
He came to Missoula fresh out of West Virginia University in June 1961 to work as a geologist for the Forest Service Northern Region.
In the following decade he worked in the ski school and as a co-manager at Snow Bowl, ran a ski shop there and later on South Higgins Avenue in Missoula. He expanded to peddle bicycles (“I was the first 10-speed bicycle dealer in Montana in 1971,”) and outdoor and athletic gear. Cohen was the first director of what became Missoula County’s Historical Museum at Fort Missoula in the early 1970s.
It was all a prelude to his true calling. In 1976 he loaded into his pickup 2,000 copies of his first book, the one on the Civil War in West Virginia, drove to his home state and sold them door to door.
A career of 41 years was launched.
Cohen said he had to smile when he and wife Anne went to high school reunions and compared lives with their classmates.
“They all went to college and became lawyers or doctors whatever, got married and had kids,” he said. “Maybe if they go to Hawaii once in their lifetime they’re really happy. I’ve been to Hawaii so many times I can’t count ‘em.”
Most of those island visits have been in conjunction with the Pearl Harbor books he researched, published and sold at every-other-December reunions of the Japanese attack in 1941.
Alaska has seen even more of Cohen. He’s written at least 15 books on the Last Frontier, and published another 35.
One of his first, “The Trail of ’42,” depicted the history of the Alaska Highway. Cohen hawked the first couple thousand copies in 1978 from his truck along the highway. Since then, he said, well over 100,000 copies have sold and 28 printings have ensued.
“It made me famous enough that I’d go up there and the people in all my stores made T-shirts with the book cover on them,” he said.
Cohen tapped into the largely ignored history of Alaska during World War II. He’s putting together the fifth volume of the Forgotten War Series of World War II in Alaska.
Cohen is a founding member and driving force at the Museum of Mountain Flying at the Missoula International Airport. He relishes the volunteer job and plans on spending more time at it. He's also treasurer of the Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History at Fort Missoula, and sits on the boards of Preserve Historic Missoula and the Northern Rockies Heritage Center.
In these parts he's perhaps best known for the local and regional books he’s produced. Cohen's two coffee-table volumes of “Missoula County Images” came out in 1982 and 1993. In the past 10 years he tapped his extensive array of historical postcards (one of the few collections he’s holding onto) to team with Arcadia Publishing for “Missoula” and “Missoula: Then and Now.” The latter he co-wrote with Philip Maechling, Missoula’s historic preservation officer.
With Donald Miller, Cohen produced a pictorial history of the University of Montana in 1980. He updated it in 2004. Cohen's “Montana’s Grandest: Historic Hotels and Resorts of the Treasure State” also came out in 2004. That same year he updated and reissued Lenora Koelbel’s 1972 “Missoula: The Way It Was” with an expanded photo section. It remains the go-to history on Missoula’s first 60 years.
The 2016 Snowbowl book, subtitled “62 Years of Skiing in Missoula,” was Cohen’s second Montana ski book. The first, “Downhill in Montana,” was published in 2007 and covered the early day history of skiing in the state.
As historian of the Western Montana Fair, he published a pictorial history of the Missoula fair in 1995. Cohen partnered with Sandra Fisher 10 years later to write and illustrate “Purple and Gold,” a history of Missoula County High School.
His jones for war history has opened windows Cohen couldn’t have imagined as a boy growing up during World War II in Charleston, West Virginia.
Beyond the Pearl Harbor reunions, he attended 36 Doolittle Raiders reunions, forming fast friendships with raiders including Missoula’s David Thatcher, the penultimate survivor.
“That’s where I met Jimmy Stewart, Cliff Robertson, all the big brass from the Air Force,” Cohen said. “Of course, Jimmy Doolittle, I used to party with him. It was beyond fantastic if you’re into that kind of history, which I am.”
His job and passion has taken him to Ecuador, Colombia and Panama; Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands; the Philippines and Midway Island twice each; Wake Island three times and, he said, “all over Europe.”
Cohen even attended four Luftwaffe reunions in Germany.
“This is stuff that I enjoy,” he said. “Not everybody wants to go to a Luftwaffe reunion or go to the Philippines and film Imelda Marcos singing for us, and that kind of stuff. But that was my life, and it was an exciting life.”
Rimel, a Missoula Sentinel graduate and 20 years Cohen’s junior, has owned Mountain Press for 33 years. He knows what Cohen’s going through as he steps back from the business.
“I think he’s having a little trouble adapting to the whole process, a little trouble letting go,” he said. “But he’s realized it’s happening. He’s making it happen.”