One of the best things about indie bookstores is the quirk factor—that their booksellers can promote old books by authors whose last names most people can’t pronounce or play Jim Croce loudly while singing along (also loudly). This is why we love Chapter One in Hamilton, Montana. Somewhere in the heart of the Bitterroot Valley these booksellers are wearing tie-dyed T-shirts, handselling Polish Poetry and chatting with flyfishing customers about what’s biting. We talked with Shawn Wathen, who recently became the sole owner of the store after long-time owners Jean and Russ Lawrence left for the Peace Corps in Peru (Wathen also happens to have a doctorate in Polish history) and his floor manager Mara Lynn Luther, who is one of the hard-reading judges for the annual Pacific Northwest Booksellers Awards.
Year established? 1974
Square feet? 3000
Number of Employees? 5 (Two Full-time, 3 part-time)
Neighborhood? Main Street
Store cat? Lenore (emeritus)
What makes Chapter One unique? Shawn and Mara do all the buying for Chapter One. Not surprisingly, our unique personalities are reflected in the books and sidelines we carry. While we stock the usual industry fare, it remains those lesser-known titles and items that feed our passion for books and independence that truly define us. When people from all over the world visit Chapter One and say “what a great book shop,” we know we are doing something right.
Shawn, you’ve been the boss at Chapter One for a little more than a year now. How has the store changed under your ownership and how has it stayed the same? On one level, you can see the changes in certain sections such as Poetry and works in translation (Shawn) and YA, remainders, and sidelines (Mara), but the real differences appear more at the margins, but are nonetheless significant. The energy at Chapter One is different, reflecting not only my reading tastes, but more fundamentally my philosophical position regarding books. We make a key distinction at Chapter One—book lovers as opposed to readers, and while they can be the same, that is not a given. We cater to book lovers, to those for whom the book store experience matters. I am not particularly interested in the e-book. All of us spend the vast majority of our time on the floor to strengthen and further the connection between readers and books (printed, not digital).
Jean and Russ made Chapter One a focal point in the community for more than twenty years. People that visit Hamilton only every few years express gratitude that we are still here. That has not, and will not change. Sometimes when you see a title on the shelf they loved, you know that there presence will always be a part of Chapter One, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What do you all have against Ken Kesey?!? Nothing against Kesey; but I love Kurt’s unique sensibilities about the world. Here is a wonderful quote from him: “Still and all, why bother? Here’s my answer: Many people need desperately to receive this message: I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people don’t care about them. You are not alone.”–Kurt Vonnegut
Who are your regulars? Like any true independent book store, the “regulars” are all an equally unique, unclassifiable group, but remain vital to our store. Mara adds that we get everyone from off-the-grid woodspeople to international scientists; rock stars to middle school librarians, and everyone in between.
What are some of the other businesses you frequent in your neighborhood? Jitter’z Espresso (conveniently located in Chapter One so our joneses can be fed immediately); River Rising Bakery; Dan’s Bar; Sam’s Spade; and Bella Boutique.
What’s the best lunch within walking distance? River Rising Bakery—the Italian sandwich—oohlala!
Will you name a couple of books that have been popular handsellers at Chapter One recently? Shawn—Reappraisals by Tony Judt; Mara—The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
A CD that would make a great soundtrack for your store? Shawn says The Essential Bruce Springsteen; Mara says The Big Chill Soundtrack and the Best of Jim Croce.
Will you and a couple of staff members recommend a few books?
Zbigniew Herbert: The Collected Prose, 1948-1998. One of the great poets of the twentieth century was no less adroit when turning to the essay. A work that will infect you for life. Sample it and be amazed. –Shawn
Couch by Benjamin Parzybok. This is the story of how three slackers move a couch and save the world a little. A wonderful contemporary epic that talks about the evils of sitting around when there is life all around. It has stayed with me.—Mara
Faithful Place by Tana French. French returns in her wonderfully cut-throat style with detective Frank Mackey, who is forced to return to his childhood home on Faithful Place. He left as a broken-hearted teenager and returns as a cop. The result is fascinating.—Maire
Saving Gracie by Carol Bradley. This is a well-researched account of U.S. puppy mills, follwing one Cavalier King Charles Spaniel female breeding dog from her rescue to her new life in a loving home. A must read for dog lovers.—Doreen