Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Lumberjack's Boxcar Library

The problem of getting books into the hands of readers has been solved in many ways over the centuries.  Of course, one of my favorites is the bookmobile.  A classic, and staple of rural life in the 20th Century.  But in 1919, there was something else in the works to get books into the hands of the lumbermen in the employ of the Anaconda Copper Mining Co.  The Anaconda company is one of those "too big to fail" sorts in the history of Montana-- it's name was apt.  But that's not to say this wasn't a great idea.
Beginning in 1919, this railroad boxcar was refitted to be a library on rails to serve the mobile timber camps in western Montana.  The men and their families could be in these remote camps for a few months at a time, and undoubtedly anticipated the days when the library car came.  That's how it was at least where I grew up on bookmobile days.  According to the info posted, it was perhaps administered by the Missoula Public Library.  I would certainly love to hear more about how this "cooperative effort" really worked between the public library and the Anaconda Co.

I'd also love to get my hands on lending records--- what were lumberjacks reading in the 1920s?  Especially lumberjacks with access to an ostensibly public library working for an enormous multi-national "evil empire" type corporation whose practices gave rise to the modern organized labor movement?  How were books selected?  Did the employees and their families enjoy it?  It must have been effective since it was in use into the late 1950s as a library by the Anaconda Co.  After that, it was used by the University of Montana at one of their lumber research stations-- first as a library then as a dormitory.  It was later used for storage, until it was discovered by the museum and acquired for restoration and interpretation of the timber history of the region.

To interpret my own photos a little, the floor plan above is oriented opposite of how the car actually sits in the first photo.  The restoration is underway, and although I know the administration at the museum where it is, I haven't had a chance to chat with him about the project.  It certainly is impressive, and should be on the biblio-tourists list of stops when passing through Montana.

Today this railroad bookmobile resides at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula in Missoula, Montana.  The restoration so far is impressive indeed.

Of course, if you know more about this amazing piece of bibliophilic history, please get in touch.  A real dream would be records, or even a book with markings that showed it was used on this unique library.  Even if it's not about this particular library on rails, I'd love to hear about others.  Do any others even exist?  Surely they do, but I've had a hard time finding any online.  I know the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula would also appreciate any stories as well.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Exile Roams West Part 3

It's been a hectic month!  I'm finally home after a few weeks of meetings and conferences that took me west.  I'm a truly blessed man to be able to drive the length of Montana several times during a gorgeous, mild autumn.

While I was in Missoula, I was able to find The Bird's Nest.  It's not hard to find, but parking can be an issue.  I was parked about 2 minutes too long on the street and was greeted with a $2 ticket.  I used it as a parking permit the rest of the weekend.

I was very happy to find this shop.  Why?  It's a true booklover's used bookshop.  When they say "Books & Stuff", it's really more about the books than the stuff, but some of the stuff was interesting too.  Ephemera anyone?  It was also nuts.  Having lived in a tiny town on a highway to Canada, I've enjoyed the quiet things in life.  But Missoula, is nuts.  The streets don't make sense, bikes everywhere, young people, buskers, Occupyers shouting, etc.  Not what I'm used to in my small town.  So, finding this quiet shop was exactly what I needed.

There were great books to be had here and prices were good too.  Very good in some cases.   I had worried that being in the center of a "happening" downtown in the arts district would make books dear.  It wasn't so.  The lady at the front desk was even great.  Completely silent the day I came in to browse (for nearly 2 hours), and helpful and pleasant when I needed help another day.  In other words, perfect.

There was even some older stuff to be found on the shelves, but prices there were bad, especially as much of the 19th C. stuff was warped/ moldy/ etc., but prices didn't reflect the generally poor condition of old stuff.  And by "old", I mean 125 years old plus.  Almost everything from the last century was in nice shape and fairly, even low priced.

I was in town for the Montana Festival of the Book and realized I had forgotten an example of a trade edition and a book club edition to be passed around so folks get an idea of the difference.  It's one of those things best explained when holding both in your hands.  I knew the Bird's Nest would have examples, and they did, as long as I wasn't too picky (It was a Crichton title for the curious-- in both BCE and Trade hardcover).

I didn't find anything in my particular collecting areas, but I did come away with bargains-- like 4 pristine volumes of The Anchor Bible for about $15!  It may have even been $12.  It's been a couple weeks ago now, but I do remember thinking I couldn't cover Media Mail shipping for the four books for that price from separate dealers.

There were also nice vintage copies of classics and now-obscure-but-the-rage-in-1935 stuff too.  There were surprises, and groaners too, but it was all well chosen and the stuff that hadn't been culled in many years of shelf-sitting you could see why it was still there.  It seemed to be a well trafficked shop, which means constant turn over.  Which is nice.

The Bird's Nest is the kind of shop where they still hang a review of Francis Parkman's works from a 1926 New York Review of Books, because it's still informative.  The old building has some charm too, which I'm certainly among the least immune.  It creaked and groaned, had odd platforms and tiny nooks I had to duck and hunch to get into.  Granted, I'm a big dude, but still--.  It was also fun to play "What Dept. Store did This Fixture Come From?"

I also stopped in at another book shop, this one more akin to Half-Price Books, for those familiar with that outfit.  (I like them a lot, but have moved far from their area).  This one is called The Book Exchange.  For most used book lovers, and seekers of the rare and odd, it was a bit too clean, a little bit slick, but they had a decent coffee shop built in, which I remember desperately needing when I arrived.  For books they had very nice remainders, gently used books, etc.  Prices were really good here as well for most things.  I came away with a lot more than I had anticipated when I walked in.  I definitely bought books out of pure serendipity.  It was about what one would expect from a smaller, more local version of Half Price Books in a modestly sized college town.  One of the things I noticed was a very large selection of comics.  I don't go in for them myself, but for those who do (and I know there's a lot of you), this would likely be a stop you wouldn't regret.  They also had a great genre paperback section, which was nice since I was needing the next installment of a series, and they had the next two!  Also, lots of parking (which is honestly almost never a problem in Montana).  Sorry I didn't seem to take many pictures inside.  Probably because my hands were full of books.

So, if you're in Missoula, there are a couple fantastic book shops in town and another close by. Check them out and say hi.  Or not.   Silence is a virtue in Montana.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Exile Roams West part 2

I've recovered from my latest trip to Missoula, this time for the Montana Festival of the Book.  What a wonderful event and an amazing group of people who put this on.  Upon arrival I picked up the loose paper bundle gathered for orienting presenters.  I scanned the program prepared as a supplement to the local newspaper, and lo and behold, thanks to alphabetical listing, there I am on the same page with James Lee Burke!  How about that.  Sure there are six names between his and mine (including the amazing Bonnie Jo Campbell), but there I am.

The festival itself was only a couple days long, but included enough panels and presentations I was forced to make tough choices.  There were often 6 choices at any one time, and all of them with fantastic authors and presenters.  You can see for yourself at the Festival website, while the 2011 info is still up.

One such session I enjoyed was a discussion between Keir Graff, Craig Lancaster, Jenny Shank, and David Abrams about "online stuff."  It was focused on blogging and social media but did get around to a few other topics as well.  Especially as all four have published/ soon-to-be-published novels.  Also, Craig was funny.  So was Jenny, but you expect her to be, having written for The Onion and McSweeney's.  Sorry, but it's true.

Montana's Festival of the Book is really dedicated to literature and literacy.  It's also almost entirely attended by middle-aged and older people, which was a surprise.  There seemed to be a lot of young people around for a few key sessions, especially in Poetry, but that would be it.  Odd.  I thought to myself, well, this is more the demographic for book collecting anyway, so I'll likely find other collectors here.  But I really didn't, until my session.  I found the idea of a session on book collecting or a talk about books as objects was disorienting to many participants.  And intriguing.  They checked their schedules, asking, "When are you, again?", and "I'll have to catch that."  

My session (titled Adventures in Book Collecting) was pretty well attended (about average for the smaller sessions).  There were tons of great questions, and people seemed genuinely interested in learning more when it was done.  Of course, my favorite part, was all the smiles at the end.  It didn't hurt LibraryThing hooked me up with some great swag to give away!  You can't tell, but the guy in the greenish shirt is holding a cue-cat.  Everyone else ran away to gloat over their prizes, so I missed photographing about half of the swag winners because I was mobbed by the audience.  I should bring an assistant next year.  Any volunteers?

Since I was in the last time-slot of the last day, the festival was drawing to a close.  It was a lot of fun and I look forward to trying it again next year, if they'll have me.

Attending these kinds of high-quality events, one should be forgiven the temptation to name-drop, so I will only indulge it only once more.  Corduroy.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Exile roams west Part 1

Almost two weeks ago now, I ventured west to Missoula.  If you're not familiar with Montana's cities, Missoula is the Austen of Montana.  Artsy, liberal, and overflowing with students.  It was site of the 2011 Montana History Conference sponsored by the Montana Historical Society.  The conference was.... ok.  More to the point though, I was finally in the populated part of the state, and in place where books must certainly hang heavy from vines.  My reasons why:  Centers of education, economic downturn (for the area), and lots of people constantly transitioning.  My mouth watered at the idea of what books could be had.

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.