Vandy Martin will be thousands of miles away at her home in Hawaii on Thursday when the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula opens its annual four-day book sale.
It’s the biggest one yet, with the number of softbacks and hardcovers totaling probably closer to 80,000 than to last year’s 50,000. In 2017 the books spilled over from historic Heritage Hall at Fort Missoula to a room in the adjacent Post Headquarters building. This time it’s occupying the whole first floors of both buildings.
“We’ve grown exponentially,” said Jessie Rogers, the museum’s development director.
Martin is the biggest reason for that. In mid-September she finished six years of pilgrimages back to her old hometown by cleaning up and closing out a storage unit at Gilly’s Mini Storage on Third Street West.
Amid five carloads of magazines dating back to the 1920s; antique furniture; comic books from the 1940s through the '60s; dozens of scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings; a velvet bride’s dress in its original packaging; boxes of phone receipts, Montana Power bills and Missoula parking tickets; boxes and boxes of holiday decorations; Martin’s childhood dolls and the first bed she ever bought were a few books.
Well, some 60 boxes full of books.
“When you get a call like that: ‘Oh, I’ve got 60 boxes of books in a storage unit that hasn’t been opened since 1989 or whatever,’ you’re skeptical,” Rogers said Wednesday. “That’s a lot of books. If they’re damaged — water, mold, mice — or if they’re all paperback romances or something, you have to be careful.”
In this case, a book from the first box she opened was titled “History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark,” copyright 1900, commissioned by the Government of the United States.
“I was just like: 'We’ll take 'em,” Rogers said.
Martin had been sharing the cost of the storage unit with her adopted mother, Ellen Sue Findley, who lives in Iowa. Over a half-dozen years she enlisted friends from Missoula and far away to help clean it out. One of them was Andrew Dayton, an old friend from Hellgate High School, with whom she reconnected in 2013 when she began the purge of the time capsule. Dayton reached out to the historical museum on Martin’s behalf.
Many of the books had been passed down to Findley from her mother, whose maiden name was Milligan. Each is beautifully inscribed inside with a family name. So Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1910 first edition “Yearbook of Humor” sports “Wm. Milligan” on the inside cover. Martin said William Milligan was Ellen Sue’s grandfather, who practiced law in Guthrie Center, Iowa.
As the sale opens its doors at 10 a.m. Thursday, “Yearbook of Humor” shares a table in Heritage Hall with “Half Hours With Great Story Tellers,” published in 1890 and also inscribed with William Milligan’s name up front.
Most books are sold by the stacked inch — $1.50 per inch. The rest are specialty priced and grouped separately.
“Because we had so many of these really cool old books, we kind of ran out of room for them,” Rogers said.
So a “Corner of Curiosity” is filled with stacks of “Bold, Beautiful and Intriguing” books, most of them from the Martin and Findley collection: foreign language books, old primers and “A Child's History of England” by Charles Dickens.
But they’re also spread around the tables and shelves of both buildings. There are four boxes of sheet music that Findley and family collected, starting probably in the 1800s. A volunteer located a thin book she’d placed in the Drama section. Published in 1951, it was titled “From Paradise to Butte: A Comedy in One Act” by Robert Finch that’s set on “a railroad station platform at Paradise, somewhere high in the Rockies.”
Contributors from Missoula County and around western Montana were so generous the historical museum staff and volunteers were forced to shut down donations early for the first time. Rogers said they'll reopen for next year after a couple of weeks of regrouping from this year's sale.
The museum tried to relieve the frenetic rush of book sale week by holding two sortings a month starting not long after last year’s sale ended.
Besides adding rooms of books in the Post Headquarters Building, there’s a Kids Kave illuminated by strings of Christmas lights and stocked with such titles as “The Adventures of Jerry Muskrat,” copyright 1939. That's the same year Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" and James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" hit bookstores, and "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz" debuted on the silver screen.
The book sale and a cheese curds booth at the Western Montana Fair each August are the two largest fundraisers for the Friends of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. There’s almost no overhead for the book sale, so virtually all proceeds are used to supplement the county museum’s efforts with exhibits and programming relating to Missoula County history and preserving artifacts of the past.
“It’s been a fascinating year of books, and a lot of fun,” Rogers said. “There’s just so many really cool finds. I think people are going to have a lot of fun with it.”