Friday, June 02, 2006

OASIS BOOKS: Choteau, Montana

Through the years I’ve had many favorite bookstores around Montana, esp. in the years I rode circuit among Missoula, Bozeman, Great Falls and Helena. (1982-85) Country Bookshelf in Bozeman was at that time the only feeder for the NYTimes list of best-sellers. My most favorite was probably Freddie’s Feed ‘n Read, a co-op more or less run by a Reed College grad. Books West in Kalispell is a long-time favorite -- probably the store that has hung on the longest. Blacktail Books is only blocks away from it. Today I set out to find a new favorite and I did.

Oasis Books is in Choteau, where some folks hope the town will become the new Aspen and other folks dread that fate. Oasis is probably a compromise position, a friendly little stash of hardback used books with emphasis on first editions, Western Americana, Native American and New Age books. That is, sophisticated but not expansionist. There were few books I didn’t recognize and many authors I dote on: James Welch, Louise Erdrich, Wallace Stegner, Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, Ed Abbey, etc. etc. Starhawk. Little or no what I would call “serious” New Age stuff (Ken Wilbur, for instance.) but that’s not what I look for.

The owners are Kip and Colette Mortenson who were organic farmers back east and now raise Angus cows in the foothills. I’d be cynical, but they’ve been there since 1999 and show no signs of folding up. The book business came by way of Kip’s dad. Kip is one of those gray ponytail guys. I didn’t meet Colette.

At the counter I stood pitching names, titles and gossipy stories at poor Kip, who was road-lagged from a buying trip and trying to catch-up his computer, but he hung right in there -- laughed at the jokes, knew who Nasdijj was, told me Darrell Kipp, Loren Bird Rattler and Carol Murray had all been by to check out the joint -- but not Adolf Hungry Wolf to his knowledge. (Though Loren was pitching Adolf’s new set of books, which is sold on this side of the border through the Blackfeet Heritage Center.)

My connections with Choteau over the years have been a little ragged, sort of touch-and-go, but I did look into buying a house there -- couldn’t afford any of them and ended up here in Valier instead. If I’d been able to get a teaching job in Choteau in the Seventies, history would have been changed. But maybe it’s heading towards the same destination anyway.

I see a slow accumulation of like-minded people -- not identical and nothing like the fundamentalist religious community that once had quite a grip in Choteau -- but a humanist, progressive, (oh, okay, New Age) type that is still attached to the land. They might have a hard time with the local homesteader square-heads who don’t like airs and graces: the ones who always mocked Bud Guthrie. Of course, by the time Peter Bowen (a much more transgressive writer!) came to live in Choteau, they understood some of the advantages of having a resident writer. But he didn’t stay. This IS the town (mostly) where the Metis Du Pré lives his fictional but intense life. Choteau actually has a pretty strong literary history, now often forgotten. There was a kind of writer’s colony up Blackleaf Canyon that predated Missoula as a literary node, at least in summer.

The bookstore is in the log building that recently housed my lawyer, Stoney Burk, an art-friendly and four-square guy who is one of the few attorneys in the state that I trust. I consider his sale of the building to the Mortensen’s to be a move towards the public good, consciously done.

Mortensen doesn’t have a website and has email but never checks it. Therefore, you have to go to Choteau or use that old-fashioned instrument “the phone.” (406-466-2800) Or snail mail: 820 Main Avenue North, Choteau, MT 59422.

Choteau is a good destination town. Several pretty good little shops plus a coffee roaster and a row of little tourist houses that include a Metis cabin (I could move in tomorrow!), a grizz display, a mini-museum and an ice cream parlor. Next door a rest room respectable enough to send kids in alone. Down the street an eatery fancy enough to serve quiche and pannini. (That famous talk-show host Whatshisname whose baby was potentially kidnapped occasionally eats there.) Actually there are several excellent places to eat. An antique store and a store that does granite kitchen counters, which is a tip-off that McMansions are being built in the vicinity, in case you don’t notice the high-end interior decorating store. The public library is one of the best on the east front, if not THE best. And the motels are pretty high-grade. One allows dogs in hunting season. Dude ranches, if you’re the type. A nice little foundry. Joe Halko, a very fine sculptor.

A little farther on north is Bynum, home of the baby dinosaurs and Marion Brandvold, who discovered them. (I think she’s the more extraordinary of the two.) And there’s a feedlot right by the highway so you can take a good whiff. A little farther on, a Hutterite colony where you might buy a goose or some veggies. All along here be mighty careful about deer, who lounge around even in the daytime, waiting for cars to spring in front of. There’s an art gallery, a wildlife viewing area -- lots of stuff.

A little farther to the south in Augusta is Latigo and Lace, one of the best little stores in the West (especially for women) and with a good stock of contemporary books.

But the key, in my opinion, is always a good dedicated bookstore and now there IS one.


Roger Bourland said...

Do you read Ivan Doig? I love the guy!

prairie mary said...

Roger, I've been slow realizing that I can respond to people who comment on my blogs by simply using the comment feature myself, as MB does so well on 2blowhards! I had the idea I needed an email address.

Now that I'm enlightened, I'll address briefly the issue of Ivan Doig, which will no doubt come up again. Ivan is my age and we both attended NU in the same scholarship group. His roommate (Ralph Votapek) dated my roommate (Gwen Kline) but we never met. He was in journalism and I was in theatre.

When I read "This House of Sky" I was absolutely wiped out. Ivan went to high school here in Valier and my step-daughter (who was a year older than me) was in the class ahead of him. I called him (in those days you could do that) and have had brief encounters at readings ever since, but have not been more than acquaintances. I sometimes joke that we've exchanged places, since I came here and he went to the wet West Coast where I grew up.

But the journalism/theatre difference plays out stronger than the Scots genes we both carry. And the biggest difference is that Ivan had a wife, which meant he could write all this time. I have not been able to write until now.

That said, I do read and enjoy Ivan's books, some more than others. I'm eager to see the next one. "Prairie Nocturne" seriously confused many people around here.

Paul Winter (you know the Winter Solstice celebration in NYC?) was also in our class, but I didn't know him at all. And Jim Welch, whose father we will bury this afternoon, is about the same age but didn't attend the same school.

Prairie Mary

Paul & Kathie said...

Hi Prairie Mary,

Kip and Odette (it's not Colette) are the real deal - while you describe their previous farm as "back East" (which is literally true, depending on where you're standing), it was actually in the mountains of West Virginia, in a county with 9,000 people whose biggest town, the county seat, has 600 and nary a traffic light (hardly the kind of setting the term "back East" conjurs for most folks). They were also real farmers, not poseurs. No need to be cynical, they'll stick. They're good folks with a real knowledge and respect for the land. We're farming now largely due to their influence, albeit in Vermont (not THAT'S back East! ;-)

If you're ever in the Green Mountain State, stop in for a visit!

- Paul & Kathie
Black Sheep Farm of Vermont

prairie mary said...

I guess I'd better get into that blog and correct Odette's name. I haven't even met her yet and already I've given her a new name!

There's an old story about a farmer out plowing in his fields (probably in New England) when someone stops his car to say that he's thinking of buying a farm not far away. "What are the folks hereabouts like?" he asks the farmer.

"Wal, what were they like in the place you're leaving?"

"Terrible. Mean, grudge-holding, never cheerful, penny-pinchers..." he went on.

When he finished, the farmer said, "I reckon you better not buy that farm. Folks around here are just like that."

Later on, a second person stopped his car to ask about that farm. The farmer asked him what the folks were like where he came from.

"Oh, they were great! I really hate to leave them but I need a different kind of place. They were always so generous, such good neighbors."

The farmer looked at him. "I think you'll find that folks here are pretty much like those you left behind!"

I'm warmly impressed with Kip and Odette and hope they stay.

Prairie Mary