ALBERTON – In between the Coke machine and the seven bikes and a stroller, the Montana Valley Book Store has several thousand of its offerings free for the taking.
Bibliophiles needn’t worry. Three generations of Keren Wales’ family still make the bookstore their home business and intend to do so for a long time. But like a bird molting feathers to release new plumage, they’ve decided to shake out the shelves.
So far, the family has only gleaned to the letter “C” in the fiction section. Robin Cook’s thriller “Blindsight” lies up for grabs, next to a novelization of the old TV courtroom drama “Ironsides” and a handbook on raising domestic rabbits. The rest of the store’s fabled “100,000 Used Books” barely notice the absence.
“My dad always said the bookstore was the goose that laid the golden eggs every year for us,” Wales said. “And now my kids are here and they say, ‘OK let’s help the goose.’ ”
As she speaks, grandson Shea, almost 5, comes up with a copy of “Along the Inca Highway.” Finds like that helped Wales rethink how to organize the store. After throwing out roughly 80 percent of the children’s section, a lot of the remainder will wind up in different places.
For example, colorful library books like “Along the Inca Highway” and “Boys of the Andes” had been stacked with the storybooks. Now they’re in the South America subject shelves, where a parent interested in that part of the world can intrigue her children at the same time.
A dozen feet above the floor by the back counter sits a 10-volume “History of England.” It was published in 1804, the same year Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were exploring western Montana.
Wales created an alcove where historic, collectable and oversized books can have more visibility. Now, they hide like Easter eggs among the thickets of related subject matter in the floor-to-ceiling shelves.
Changes like that mean slight but wrenching breaks with tradition for the store, which Wales’ father Kenneth started in 1978. The roadside attraction remains all about books – no espresso bar, no bakery, no overstuffed armchairs, no magazine rack. There’s no floor space for any of that. In fact, there’s not enough shelf space for the books – hundreds teeter in piles on the floor at the end of their respective subject stacks.
“We’ve got all these hardback mysteries with their bright covers, and they’re all at the end of this dark aisle,” Wales said. “We’d love to expand our psychology section, but most if it just sits in boxes.”
On the other hand, the store’s front window displays a floor-to-ceiling shelf of children’s books that haven’t earned their prime real estate. While some storybooks remain mainstays of Montana Valley’s clientele, a glut of young-adult fiction from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s hangs around like a 40-year-old’s belly flab. Ever since J.K. Rowling transfigured the middle school fiction world with Harry Potter, stories of teenage angst and prom dates like Paul Kropp’s 1980 “Wilted” can’t even attract bookworms.
“This one’s been right in the window,” said Wales’ daughter-in-law, Jen Fredette. “Over 30 years, it’s been sitting on the shelf. If it still hasn’t sold for $1.95, it’s probably not going to sell.”
Those that don’t make the cut sit on the store’s porch, free for the taking. Occasionally, Wales drives a load to the Missoula Public Library’s free book table. Although she doesn’t want to overwhelm that outlet, she’s amazed at its patrons.
“I took down 28 boxes of encyclopedias to the giveaway table a little while ago,” she said. “Two days later, I brought down two more boxes, and all the first 28 were gone.”
Fredette, Wales’ son Ray Fredette and Wales’ grandchildren Georgia, 6, Shea and Marley, 2, all share duties in the store. The little ones’ main job is product testing: scouring the shelves for fascinating, eye-catching, who’d-a-thought things to read.
But Jen and Ray have injected a digital intruder into this paper environment. They tote a Google Nexus 7 tablet from shelf to shelf, querying the Internet for interest in obscure titles and potentially valuable editions. They check auction sites for the latest prices and trends, then apply the same ideas to their own stacks.
“You can’t take for granted that in 30 years, people will still love and cherish books,” Ray said. “Hence the push to really stay on the ball.”
“We decided let’s stock the front with the best books we’ve got,” Jen said. “If we filled this with collector’s editions priced really high, there’d be so many books that nobody could afford to buy. If we priced everything low, it would be all picked over and no one could find anything.”
While the store has its share of specialty customers seeking rare copies, most of the trade gets lured off Interstate 90 by the billboards advertising 100,000 books. The fact there’s little to do or eat between Superior and Missoula for all the skiers and river floaters helps, too.
But the book industry has its odder corners, which Montana Valley can fill as well. Wales said she recently got a call for what sounded like “read books.”
“I said I think all of our books have been read,” she told the caller. “They meant ‘red.’ They wanted lots of red books for decorating a room.”
Hotel managers call, wanting a mix of 300 titles for the reading nook of their lobbies. Travelers usually want paperbacks, which the bookstore has a bulging basement full of. But hardback nonfiction has been making a surge, so it’s going to get more space in the new configuration. And there remain thousands more books in storage that the family hasn’t even seen for years. All those await a day on the shelf.
“I just finished college, and the textbooks I used would have been a lot more efficient if I had them on an e-reader,” Ray said. “As much as my family needs the book business to survive, I can see the other side of that.”
However, few old books get lucky enough to be republished in digital format. That’s where Wales sees her future.
“I’m one who hopes both worlds survive,” she said. “Just as we have bikes and horses and cars and trains and planes.”