Gary Robson is no longer the CEO and general manager of This House of Books in downtown Billings.
Details are scarce, but apparently the independent cooperative bookstore has been struggling financially since it opened Oct. 1, and with the departure of Robson and the manager of the store’s new tea bar, there are only two full-time employees.
An emailed newsletter from the bookstore, sent out Thursday, said only that “As of March 13, This House of Books is under new management. Gustavo Belotta is our new bookstore manager.”
Precious McKenzie, one of three members of the store’s board of directors, and the only one reached by Last Best News, declined to discuss Robson’s departure, but she did say that business was very slow in January and February.
“We definitely need to sell more shares and increase sales in the store,” she said.
Start-up funding for the bookstore was supposed to come from the sales of shares in the business. As explained on the bookstore’s website, common shares are $100 each, making the investor a voting member of the co-op and giving the investor a 5 percent discount on purchases from the store and its tea bar-cafe. There are four other levels of investment, each with increasing discounts, perks and recognition.
In September, when Robson announced the last push in a campaign to sell shares before the store opened, he said they had raised only about half of their $200,000 goal.
Robson was formerly the owner of Red Lodge Books and Tea, and when he was hired to manage This House of Books, the cooperative also purchased all the assets of the Red Lodge store, including books, shelving, fixtures and furniture, the tea bar, computer equipment, software and sales information.
Of the money he was owed, Robson said, “I’ve received a little more than half the payments.” He also said that he and Gwen Gunn, the tea bar manager, had not been paid “in some time.” Robson said he and Gunn are planning to open a new tea shop in Red Lodge as soon as they can.
Robson also declined to go into detail about his departure from the store, saying, “This was the culmination of ongoing discussions dating back to early February.”
As for the financial affairs of the store, he said only, “I was surprised by the seasonality of sales in Billings, and foot traffic in downtown Billings was less than Red Lodge.”
Belotta, the new manager, is working with Jamie Winter, who is managing the tea bar, which opened three weeks ago and sells 150 blends of tea. Belotta, who has been working at the store since it opened, previously worked at the now-closed Hastings store in Billings for 16 years, for 13 of those years as the manager.
He said he was informed by the board of directors last weekend that he would be the new manager as of Monday.
Belotta said he hopes to bring in more customers by putting on “as many events as we can get in here,” including readings, signings and book club meetings, in addition to the game night held every Thursday. You can check the calendar on the store’s homepage to see upcoming events.
Last fall, he said, the store opened during the last Farmer’s Market of the year, so he looks forward to gaining a lot of visibility during the full Farmer’s Market season this year. Saturday morning, during the St. Patrick’s Day parade in downtown Billings, the tea bar will be serving a special Irish mint iced tea giving out samples in front of the store.
Belotta also plans to continue doing the kind of events he developed at Hastings.
“I always tried to have an open relationship with local writers,” he said, stocking books by as many of them as he could and putting on events where they could meet potential readers or fans.
“I hope that relationship was positive enough that they’ll come back, if they haven’t already,” he said.
Belotta said he and Winter will be the only full-time employees through the end of March, and in April they hope to start training a few more part-time workers. This House of Books is open from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Summer hours will be 10-7, and the store might be open on Sundays if there’s enough foot traffic.
Full disclosure: Ed Kemmick, who wrote this story, is an investor in This House of Books, having bought one common share.