Friday, August 27, 2010


Sometimes the most subtle shifts have the most impact in the long run. I’m thinking about the shift from watching television to using a computer, which appears to be the same but is radically different. A television is a passive instrument: your only choices are on/off/change-channel. A computer is active: your choices are unlimited whether you are writing something, building database, or prowling the internet. A gameset is in between: you are acting voluntarily in a choice of ways within a limited context.

With that in mind, this is a story about books. Someone sent me an email saying they had been to Fort Benton, a wonderful (truly!) old (OLDEST) Montana town, and had been in a bookstore where they were told that “Bronze Inside and Out” was no longer available. EAACCCAKKK!!! I called a museum bookstore down there. (There are about four.) The girl said she had never heard of the book and there was no bookstore in town either -- just a little shop with a collection of old junk with one shelf of strange books. On Friday I nailed the Fort Benton contingent at the history seminar about the elusive bookstore and they assured me it was a MAJOR and ADMIRABLE -- in fact, STUNNING -- bookstore with terrific treasures all through it. I called there and got a very evasive owner. So I saddled up and went to scout yesterday. I like to see the whites of their eyes.

The little junk shop with a few books was there. Pretty good stuff, I thought. The guy is actually a saddlemaker and works in the back. He knew about the other bookstore: Riverbreak Books and Gear, 808 17th St., 406-622-5816. Tom Carrels, owner. It was indeed a terrific bookstore -- not just that. Zillions of hats and other outdoor kinds of stuff.

Some people will recognize this boomer life trajectory: South Dakota boyhood in Aberdeen; Missoula in the Seventies studying wildlife and landscape; then U Dub for a slightly more sophisticated degree, last ten years in Alaska. (Anyone know what ever happened to Jay Vest? Neither of us did. Last night I googled him. He’s a professor in North Carolina publishing books about Blackfeet, like, yetanother set of Napi tales.) Carrels has bought this historic two-story riverfront building and will create a hostel upstairs. His ideas are sound IMAO: not just history but also geological adventures on the river and surrounding land. Not just folks driving out from Great Falls for supper (it’s about thirty miles and there are good places to eat) but European backpackers and Calgary empty nesters in RVs. He doesn’t really understand the new books, ebooks, print-on-demand, Canadian, academic presses, wholesalers, self-publishing, etc. He’s just always bought books, objects, real things, maybe used and maybe new. He has good taste, meaning it’s a lot like mine. It was worth coming to check out. Easy to check the whites of eyes wide open.

I went on to the fort reconstruction and its museum. The women there called the men, some of whom I already knew slightly. Though presumably Fort Benton is a “Bob Scriver town” because of the Lewis & Clark monument and the portrait of Shep, they insisted they knew nothing about “Bronze Inside and Out,” Devotees of the Montana Historical Society, closely enough related to be assuming custody of the Scriver Blackfeet series of bronzes which is currently stored in Edmonton, they knew nothing about me. (The society finds me an inconvenience, an anachronism.) Though “Montana, The Magazine of Western History,” published by the Montana Historical Society, has printed two quarter-page ads and two reviews of “Bronze Inside and Out,” one man explained to me, “No one came here to us and asked us to buy a copy.” Passive.

That’s the key: they are passive television people. NONE of them uses the computer to look for information. The word “blog” scares them. The Internet sounds to them like a trap. They assume the internet will grab them, force them to look at dirty pictures, and blab all their confidential information to the neighbors. Meanwhile, their kids are texting like mad, talking to other kids all over the planet. They are very impatient with the older generation, and they are right.

So I make these big bold accusations and it turns out this generalization is WRONG !! (Not for the first time, and ever so cheerfully!) There are three blogs coming out of Fort Benton, as follows: Active.

This idea of Fort Benton being blog-blind is my projection. Now I must go look in the mirror and ask myself why I have been so passive in the past that I didn’t find the Fort Benton blogs? (They still have not found mine, I think, though I just mailed them a complete guide to the publications of Mary Scriver.)

Fort Benton is where it is because that point on the river was as far into the interior of Blackfeet country as you could go on a steamboat. That meant the European aristocracy and the most enterprising of the early artists (like Audubon) could come to the heart of Blackfeet country on what was essentially a floating hotel. Regardless of what that meant to the visitors, it meant that shrewd and clever local eyes were watching as soon as they left St. Louis. And they are still here. Natawista was the resourceful wife of Culbertson, whose office will be replicated in this newly reconstructed fort, complete with log palisade. Her great-grandson was in my English classroom in Cut Bank a few years ago. He looked a lot like her and his personality was not so different either. Today, if you had five dollars for every Blackfeet living in Fort Benton, you might be able to buy an ice cream cone at the Tastee Freeze.

It appears to me that Fort Benton is operating on several levels. One is the sober historians and solid citizens who have raised the funds for and now operate this excellent and accurate fort reconstruction, according to historians and documents. The other is the entrepreneurs (saddlemakers and used book dealers) in the solid but decrepit actual historic buildings on the waterfront across from the sculpture promenade. They are still having adventures, open to possibility. I find myself -- as usual -- on the boundary. I began this post intending to find one type passive and one type active, but it’s more complicated than this. It’s more like this: Jack Lepley, one of the town’s revered history fathers, just finished a book on the last brothel in Fort Benton. What makes him think there are not brothels now? Maybe the last anything is still in the future.

It’s like this: Bob Doerck, another of the resident historians who has a formidable book collection, wanted to know if I’d written another book. Books have changed as much as brothels. I’m writing “books” but he’d not recognize them nor are they history. “History” is not always the best position for the future, but it’s a good foundation.

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