Most of the pieces are in place for downtown co-op bookstore


David Crisp/Last Best News

Carrie La Seur, a board member of the Billings Bookstore Cooperative, stands in front of the former Wendy’s restaurant in downtown Billings that is being considered to house the bookstore.

Step by step, plans for a cooperative bookstore in downtown Billings are moving forward.

Last week, the project got a certificate of filing from the Montana secretary of state, which allows it to begin selling stock for the venture. Organizers have commitments for more than $24,000 worth of stock and can now begin invoicing to collect on those pledges, said Carrie La Seur, one of three initial board members selected at a recent general meeting of the Billings Bookstore Cooperative.

Also last week, organizers were working on opening a credit union account, and job applications closed for filling the bookstore’s crucial general manager job.

Architect Randy Hafer is working on a feasibility plan for locating the store in the old downtown Wendy’s location. That plan was made possible by an $8,000 grant from the Downtown Billings Alliance.

“The idea is to make this an anchor of downtown,” said La Seur, an attorney and author.

The cooperative hopes to raise $250,000 for the first year of operations and hopes to reach profitability in the first couple of years.

Co-op members can buy one $100 share of common stock to become eligible to vote in board elections and on bylaws. Preferred stock at $500 a share also is available and entitles the owner to possible dividends of up to 6 percent once the store becomes profitable.

Discussion about opening a cooperative bookstore arose after Thomas Books closed downtown. Lots of Billings people missed the store, La Seur said, and began looking for a way to open a new store. But Susan Thomas kept her bookstore open for two decades only by a huge commitment and a tremendous amount of work, so book lovers began looking for alternatives.

Former Mayor Chuck Tooley first suggested the idea of opening a cooperative, La Seur wrote in an article that appeared April 12 on Huffington Post. A small group of Billings residents—La Seur; her husband, Andy Wildenberg, who teaches computer science at Rocky Mountain College; author Craig Lancaster; and attorney Emily Stark—began meeting, as La Seur put it, as a “casual drinking club with a bookstore problem.”

Janice Brown of the Montana Cooperative Development Center helped put a business plan together, and Precious McKenzie, an English professor at Rocky Mountain College, explored downtown real estate with George Warmer, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker.

“I learned a lot about commercial real estate through George,” said McKenzie, who also is, along with La Seur and Nina Hernandez, development director of Youth Dynamics, on the co-op’s board of directors.

As soon as she walked into the old Wendy’s, McKenzie said, she could see a bookstore there. The large old windows, the downtown location—it all seemed perfect. Now Hafer is making sure that it’s a sound leasing investment.

The next key step is hiring a general manager, a position that requires not only expertise about books but also about marketing, inventory, personnel and public relations. The co-op is looking for a manager who will just naturally go up to people and ask what they’re looking for, La Seur said.

Because the position requires so much expertise, the pool of applicants was not large, La Seur said. But she said she was confident that one of the applicants would turn out to be ideal for the job.

Also planned is a series of house parties to encourage new memberships. One of those will be hosted by Bill Cochran, who recently retired as director of the Billings Public Library.

Although the age of the Internet may not seem like the best time to launch a real bookstore, both La Seur and McKenzie said business is looking up for smaller, independent bookstores with a community focus.  Even, the online books giant, has reportedly been considering opening retail stores.

It’s part of a nationwide trend, McKenzie said, of people attempting to establish closer relationships with each other and find places where people can just talk.

“You can’t get that on Amazon,” she said.

Plans are for the bookstore to focus on new books and on hosting lots of events. Renovations may be phased in to avoid a large initial capital investment, but plans include adding refreshments.

La Seur and McKenzie both also see the bookstore as a magnet for other cultural events downtown. By working with other book sources—Barjon’s, A Few Books More, the Billings Public Library—the cooperative hopes to make downtown a focus for cultural events.

“When you say arts and culture and music,” McKenzie said, “everybody thinks of Missoula. And I love Missoula. But why not us?”

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