Once I got there, I did have to actually attend the conference, and also had some other responsibilities there as well (board meeting for the Museums Assoc. of Montana), but I would have a full morning and one gap in an afternoon I could use to explore the area bookshops.
I consulted with my Readar app by LibraryThing. Readar is a locator for bookshops, libraries, book festivals, etc. Like UrbanSpoon, but for booklovers, they say. I can see that. Now, the content of the bookstore locator information, reviews, etc. is user generated, so in some cities and parts of the country it can be uneven. Montana is one such place (but improving incrementally now I'm getting out and about).
Readar said there were a few bookshops near my hotel, but no hours, no reviews, not even clear if they were new or used shops. I checked in another source-- The Yellow Pages. Not a website of yellow page listings, mind you, the actual phone book in the drawer by the bed in my hotel room. Those Yellow Pages.
One large listing caught my eye-- The Montana Valley Book Store, 100,000 used books, open every day 8-7. Early enough I could could have a good long browse before my first meeting at noon, and if I have to go back Saturday or even Sunday on my way home, no problem. I could even hit it again in a couple weeks when I come back to town for the Montana Festival of the Book. Open. Every. Day.
I checked the address-- Alberton. Where's that?! My in-phone GPS assured me it was close-- only 20 minute drive on the interstate west from Missoula. I made my plans for an early Cracker Barrel breakfast (I can't quit that cheesy hash-brown stuff and sweet tea) and hit the road.
I arrived at 7:30 in Alberton after a highly efficient breakfast. I was early and excited. Alberton is a very small mountain town that was obviously established to take advantage of the railroad, or the railroad came through Alberton to take advantage of it happening to being there. Either way, it didn't seem to be a healthy relationship. The small town has seen more affluent days, but still had that charm small mountain towns do. I started watching for the book store. It wasn't hard to miss on the main drag through the few blocks that makes up the town center.
The building has certainly seen better days, but was on the historic register, which meant it was beloved by someone. A 100+ year-old former grocery store, according to the plaque. Interesting. The huge front windows were dark, but in the growing daylight, I could see narrow packed shelves with books from floor nearly to 12-foot ceiling. I'm a big guy, and I already knew this was going to be tight.
Promptly at 8 AM, Keren, the owner and her big dog (that I don't remember the name of, but was equally nice as his owner) unlocked the doors and turned on the lights. Rather, snapped on *the* light. Each row of shelves has its own lights overhead for browsers to flip on and off as they go along. For doing so, each bank of lights has long strings dangling down to frighten you while browsing and forgetting that long strings are dangling from the ceiling to run across the back of your neck, feeling precisely like some kind of insect intruder about to dive down the back of your shirt.
The important stuff-- the books. They were everywhere. They claim 100,000 plus, and I bet they're right.
The books were interesting. A good mix of fiction, both antique, unfashionable, popular and recent stuff. Almost like the leftover books of a hundred years of vacations all in one place. Also, a goodly bit of poetry. Nonfiction was also good, especially in the outdoorsy subjects-- hunting, fishing, camping, gardening, etc. Plenty of the unexpected too-- like a road-map of Morocco circa 1975.
Condition was overall a bit lower than I like. I found a couple books I passed on because of condition-- even the occasional moldy book. There were also the pre-requisite used bookshop cats who were not very sociable that early in the morning (neither am I), but the occasional puff of hair from the books reminded me they were there. Maybe a pass for folks with allergies.
Prices were good considering this is western Montana, a very expensive place to operate a retail business of any kind. I went in hoping to find a couple things I thought likeliest to find. I came away with none off that list, rather an armload of serendipity and a good conversation. That's likely the best way to visit the store-- with open eyes and mind.
So, if you're in Missoula or just cruising I-90, don't be afraid of heading west to Alberton and stop in to Montana Valley Book Store and see what treasures you uncover.
Check back soon... it was an eventful trip.