Montana’s brewery trail, a map created to encourage tourism to the state’s many microbreweries, has more than 50 stops. The trail snakes from the western side of the state into southwest and central Montana, then east, with an outlier on the Hi-Line.
“Everyone knows beer trails. So why not book trails?” wondered Chelsia Rice, co-owner of Montana Book Co., in downtown Helena. “Book people make it a point to check out the bookstore when they go to a new town. Bookstores exemplify the community in which they’re situated.”
So when Rachel Elliot-Brug, owner of Reading Leaves Books in Townsend, contacted Rice with an idea to start a bookstore trail, she enthusiastically said “yes.” Along with a handful of booksellers throughout the state, they set about making the Montana Bookstore Trail, which includes 21 independent bookstores. In June, accompanying bookstore passports were mailed to each bookstore to encourage tourists and travelers to check out Montana’s literary communities this summer. The passports are free, funded by Visit Southwest Montana, Far Country Press and Arcadia Press. Visitors receive a stamp in their passport, which is about the size of a regular passport, for each bookstore they visit.
Participating locations number fewer than half of the bookstores that Elliott-Brug contacted, but she hopes that as the passport gains attention, more booksellers will want to join.
“Everyone thinks that bookstores are disappearing, but they are not,” Elliott-Brug said. “We add more bookstores every year. I guess it’s just an inspiring state to live in.”
“I wanted it to be completely inclusive of all the bookstores,” she said, though not everyone responded to her inquiry. Since launching, she’s received several calls from booksellers wanting to be included in next year’s bookstore trail.
In 2012, Montana had the most bookstores per capita in the nation , according to Publishers Weekly, which examined the health of bookstores from Alaska to Florida. The study has not been repeated, but at the time Montana had 64 stores — one for every 15,705 people. Of that number, 35 were independent bookstores. To create the bookstore trail, Elliott-Brug contacted nearly 50 independent bookstores and sellers currently operating in Montana.
Elliot-Brug’s business, Reading Leaves, began in 2018 as a pop-up bookseller after her third child was born. “I was looking for ways that I could do more in the community and still keep him with me, and books have always been a passion of mine,” she said. In 2019 she moved into a physical space on Broadway in Townsend, which did not have a bookstore.
“Bookstores are probably the most supportive group I’ve ever known,” Elliot-Brug said. “You can ask questions and get answers from people who have been in the business for 60 years. It’s not really a competition. It’s more of when someone does well, everyone does well. We share information.”
Such comradery exists between Reading Leaves and Montana Book Co., which are located in neighboring towns. When Rice installed new shelves and fixtures at Montana Book Co., the old ones were given to Reading Leaves.
“Community connections are vital to our state,” Rice said. “We need more books, and it doesn’t need to be a competition. I’m not worried about losing people to other bookstores. I need people to spend their money. Put it where it counts.”
Julie Schultz, board treasurer for This House of Books, had a similar experience when helping launch the cooperative bookstore in 2018 in downtown Billings. She turned to Ariana Paliobagis, owner of Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, for advice.
“She was super generous with her time,” Schultz said. “I sat down just asking her stupid question after stupid question, and she didn’t make me feel like they were stupid questions at all.”
The network of independently owned bookstores is linked by the American Booksellers Association (ABA), and its regional associations. Montana is the only state in the nation with two regional associations, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association and the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association.
Independently owned bookstores have faced many threats as technology has evolved, and online retailers such as Amazon and the advent of e-books and Kindle posed another avenue of competition. COVID-19 also exaggerated issues for book retailers, and while it seemed like they might not recover after the pandemic shuttered many locations, bookstores have rebounded with strong numbers. According to the ABA, in 2023 membership reached its highest level in 20 years, growing by 300 members since 2019 (before the COVID-19 pandemic).
“With the revival of independent bookstores, we all do better, and our industry does better, if more of us are thriving,” Rice said.
Rice compares her bookstore to a bar. People come in to share their joys and sorrows, but instead of bartenders, customers share with booksellers.
“People tell us their stories all the time,” Rice said. “When people feel lonely, or when they feel like they are suffering something, a lot of people turn to books to look for examples of themselves and find stories to help them contextualize what is going on in their lives.”
Many independent bookstores function beyond the shelves, hosting author signings, book clubs, game nights and other community events. At Elk River Books in Livingston, author events and book signings have grown in popularity and frequency, said Marc Beaudin, who co-owns the downtown store.
“The community is super supportive of the literary arts, and that is partly because of the incredible caliber of authors who are willing to come and do readings. It is such a draw for the community.”
Bookstores are often described as a “third place,” a social environment outside of home and work. Gyms, libraries, churches, cafes, clubs and parks also fall into the category. Elliot-Brug hopes the bookstore passport encourages people to seek out their local bookstore as a third place to gather.
“Bookstores are destinations. They promote culture in our communities and are a place where people can exchange ideas and get to know each other away from home and work,” Elliot-Brug said.
Rice is excited to utilize the passport herself.
“The book passport is a great way to get people out and explore,” she said. “There are so many more bookstores that I didn’t know existed.”
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