Potential customers of and investors in a downtown Billings cooperative bookstore got a sneak peek at the space Thursday night.
The two-hour open house at This House of Books, in the old Wendy’s at Second Avenue North and North 29th Street, attracted a steady flow of people. The event no doubt got a bit of a boost from the Pita Pit-hosted Alive After 5 concert, which drew hundreds of people to the stretch of Second Avenue between North 29th and Broadway.
This House of Books is hoping to open by Sept. 1, though Gary Robson, store manager and CEO, acknowledged Thursday that the store’s board of director’s has not yet signed a lease on the building.
At the open house, published authors who have already bought shares in the co-op had books on display, along with printed biographies, and many of them were on hand.
“As you can tell,” Robson said, gesturing toward eight or 10 tables full of books, “we’ve got a lot of local authors.”
One of them was Lynn Boughey, an attorney who works in Minot and lives part-time in Red Lodge. He is also a spy novelist and co-author with Peter Earnest, a 36-year veteran of the CIA, of “Harry Potter and the Art of Spying,” which looks at the spycraft used in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
Boughey said the book is the best-selling volume at the bookstore in the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. He said he was excited about the opening of This House of Books because “when I travel I’m always checking out the bookstores.”
But he had some mixed feelings as well, since he is a part-time resident of Red Lodge. Robson and his wife, Kathy, will be closing their popular Red Lodge Books & Tea in order to run the new store in Billings.
Robson, already the tallest person in the room, stood on a booth bench to briefly welcome visitors Thursday night and to tell them a little more about the store. Even though it’s a co-op, he said, it will be open to everyone.
“Anyone can come in and shop, but you get benefits for becoming a member,” he said, including a 5 percent discount on purchases in the store and cafe for members who buy one share for $100. Benefits, including dividends, increase for those who buy in for larger amounts.
Robson said competing in today’s book environment is completely different from what he faced when he opened the Red Lodge store 15 years ago. Nowadays, he said, a reader might hear of a new release by a favorite author and go straight to a computer or mobile device to buy one.
What This House of Books hopes to do, he said, is have that person come to the downtown store for a reading, comedy night or live music, get a drink and a snack from the tea bar and then buy that new book. It’s all about forming relationships and offering events and activities on as many days of the week as possible.
Even in Red Lodge, a city of 2,200 people, Robson said, he managed to have two or three authors a week give readings at his store last summer. He expects to bring in a lot more authors in Billings, as well as all the other events he has planned.
Nina Hernandez, the board’s treasurer-secretary said it was “super-humbling” to serve on the board with three published authors—Robson, Precious McKenzie and Carrie La Seur. She said she got involved “because Carrie and I like to have beers.”
Hernandez is the development director for Youth Dynamics,a statewide organization that provides services to young people with severe emotional disturbances. Her job on the bookstore board, she said, is mostly to make connections between bookstore supporters and people in the business community who can help with funding or meeting other needs.
The old Wendy’s looked to be in surprisingly good shape, with a clean, spacious ground floor and an expansive mezzanine section that looks down on the main dining area. Off to one side of the mezzanine, a little utensil station was still stocked with packets of salt and pepper, straws, knives and forks.
Down among the tables full of books by local authors, the Montana writer for whom the store was named got “a place of honor,” as Robson put it, near the front door. That would be Ivan Doig, whose most famous work was “This House of Sky,” and who died last year.