Red Lodge Books owner to run new Billings co-op bookstore

Robson

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Gary Robson, seen here under Skypoint, has been hired to run a cooperative bookstore in downtown Billings.

The longtime owner of a popular bookstore in Red Lodge has been hired to manage a cooperative bookstore that supporters hope to open this summer in downtown Billings.

The Billings Bookstore Cooperative is also buying the entire inventory of Gary Robson’s Red Lodge Books & Tea, which should greatly accelerate plans for the Billings store.

“We’re thrilled about having Gary on board,” said Carrie La Seur, one of three initial members of the co-op’s board. “It’s a quantum leap forward not just toward opening the store this summer as we’d hoped but toward achieving profitability earlier than anticipated.”

The cooperative plans to open the new bookstore in the old Wendy’s restaurant at 2906 Second Ave. N. Robson said the co-op intends to sign a lease on the building, choose a name for the store and obtain a business license, all in the coming week. He plans to continue running the Red Lodge store and getting the new store ready for several weeks and then close Red Lodge Books & Tea on June 6.

If everything falls into place, he said, it’s possible the new store could be open by the end of July, “but I’m just telling people late summer.”

As we reported last week, plans for a cooperative started more than a year ago, after the closure of Thomas Books, an independent downtown bookstore. Robson knew La Seur and and another co-op founder, Craig Lancaster, because both novelists had done readings at his Red Lodge store, so he offered consulting help almost as soon as they began talking.

It wasn’t until a couple of months ago that they broached the possibility of having Robson run the new store.

“It’s been a really rough call to make because we’re so deeply entrenched in downtown Red Lodge,” he said. “But I live for challenges.”

Robson and his wife, Kathy, moved to Red Lodge in 2001 and bought what was then the Broadway Bookstore, which had gone through several incarnations since opening in 1986. It had been a used-book store most recently, and the Robsons changed the focus to new books and then added games, some toys and tea.

A full tea bar, serving more than 150 varieties of tea, has been part of the store for five years, and the manager of the tea bar will also be moving to the Billings bookstore, which will include a small cafe.

Robson said he’ll be moving his entire stock of books, games, toys and teas to the Billings store, along with all the furniture, shelving and other fixtures. An important intangible asset, Robson said, is a 15-year database of every sale made at the Red Lodge store, information that will help him meet the needs of his new customers in Billings.

From the start, supporters of the cooperative bookstore talked about the importance of making the store a gathering spot for downtown Billings, a belief Robson shares. If the store is going to compete with online booksellers, he said, it has to be about more than books.

That’s why he wants to have open-mike nights, standup comedy, author events, book club meetings, gatherings of writers groups and, as he has offered in Red Lodge, weekly game nights.

“I want a calendar that’s stuffed to the gills with stuff going on,” he said.

In a press release, Robson said he wanted the new store’s inventory to be a “carefully curated collection of books that fit the community.” He also said it will have “a little bit of everything, but the focus will be on regional authors and topics, educational books, nature and science, classics and a strong children’s section.”

Robson, like several of the co-op’s shareholders, is also an author. He has published 27 books in a variety of genres, but his most popular books have been his “Who Pooped in the Park?” children’s books, which have sold more than 400,000 copies.

He has also taught college courses, founded a high-tech business and for eight years published the Red Lodge Local Rag, a monthly newspaper. He plans to continue living in Red Lodge, where he and Kathy have long been involved in business and civic organizations.

The Billings Bookstore Cooperative is open to anyone who wants to become a member, with voting shares selling for $100 and dividend shares for $500. There is a cap of 1,000 on the number of dividend shares. For more information about joining, call Robson at 446-2742 or write to billingsbookstore@gmail.com

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