By Marnie Craig
In 1994, a team of book lovers with handcarts and a strong back rolled shelves and boxes of books from Main Street in Hamilton to the storefront at the corner of Main and Third Streets, where the Chapter One bookstore has been in operation for 26 years. This independent bookstore survived the rise of Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, the Great Recession and a pandemic.
Dust has settled on the shelves since Governor Bullock shut down all non-essential businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19, so over the weekend, employees and booksellers Shawn Wathen and Mara Lyn Luther cleaned up the store to reopen on Monday. Signs on the doors indicate that only ten people can be inside at a time.
“We’ll have duct tape on the floor to show what six feet looks like and we’ll have a regular cleaning schedule,” Luther said. “We will also offer curbside pickup. “
The last day the store opened before the closure took effect was the busiest day of the year. The community flocked to support the bookstore before closing the doors.
“It was like a wake,” Luther said. “We couldn’t kiss and people came out with tears in their eyes. Life was pretty scary. We didn’t know what temporary meant or what things would look like on the other side. Would we survive?
“We locked our door for what was supposed to be two weeks, but neither of us thought it would only be two weeks,” Wathen said. “When we locked the doors, we didn’t know if they would ever open again. “
Handmade black and white signs in a typewriter font hang from the ceiling to denote the sections of books that Wathen and Luther have neatly curated over the years. The store is full of books, but books aren’t the only thing customers find inside. Waten and Luther encourage conversations by providing what the community wants. “We want our community to know that we are their bookstore and we want to be part of their conversation,” said Luther.
She said it’s the book recommendations and human-to-human conversations that people come for. The two owners support conversation as an art form, and they enjoy talking about books with people. “We could talk about books all day, which is why we’re working here,” Luther said. “We talk about books with clients and continue the conversation after they leave. “
Wathen said that chapter one has a story and that the people who come in and make a personal connection are a part of the story. “We organize and tell this story,” he said. “You can’t do it online. It feeds into the whole narrative of how a bookstore is part of the community. Bookstores remind people of the power of language to share ideas and concepts so that they can have real discussions. “
Wathen started working at Chapter One in 1996 because he was unemployed and hungry. He and his wife Laura had just returned to Montana after living in Paris and Poland. Bookstore owners Russ Lawrence and Jean Matthews feared a doctorate. Central and Eastern European intellectual history candidate wouldn’t stay long in their small town bookstore, so they asked him to enlist for six months. Soon after, Wathen got hooked – he was invested in the community. Five years later, he became a partner and in 2009, he bought the store. “I didn’t think anything in the world would make me want to own a business,” he said. “But there is something a little different about the books.”
Wathen’s son Brendan said that growing up in the bookstore books and literature were a part of his personality. “When I was a kid, I spent my lunches at the school library,” he said. “I would stay up late at night to read and my parents would often tell me ‘no books at the table’. “
Brendan wrote a novel in high school. After graduation he traveled and wrote a novel while living in Morocco. Today he lives in Eugene, Washington, and spends his time writing fiction. He recognized the importance of the bookstore to the community when his parents took him to a dinner party. “The bookstore seemed to be the entity that linked all of these people together – whether they worked in the store, were friends of the owners, or just loved books and stopped frequently,” he said. -he declares. “I have been to a lot of bookstores and although I admit I am biased, I have yet to find its resemblance.”
Luther started working at Chapter One in 2005 because she loved books. In 2010, she entered into a partnership with Wathen. “If I had known I could have gone into the book business, I would have done it in school,” she said. “Shawn was a progressive, open-minded and charming and curmudgeonly business partner who made it easy for me.”
Luther’s daughter, Mikaela, began her life in the bookstore as a child. “She learned which books she could touch and pulled the used books off the shelf and surrounded herself with them,” Luther said. “Today, she is six and a half years old and enjoys reading graphic novels. She recognizes words and assembles sentences.
Becky Boykin is a longtime Chapter One customer. She attends the Saturday Morning Book Club hosted by Luther once a month, where readers spend an hour discussing a book and an hour Skype with the author. She discovered translation books and Eastern European literature while attending Wathen’s lecture series at the Bitterroot Public Library. “I learned so much,” she says. “There were books I would never have read without his lecture series.”
She attended the “book club at the bar”. “It started at Silver Coin Casino, but because it wasn’t accessible to me, they moved it to Taco Del Sol,” she said. “They brought coffee tables and chairs from the store so I could participate as I am a wheelchair user.”
The store has had a website for two decades, but most people don’t know it exists. Some of the intangibles you can’t get online are book recommendations, conversations, author autographs, launch parties, and lectures. Wathen said that’s why the store thrived.
“This is one of the things Russ and Jean wanted to do when they brought the store to Main Street,” he said. “They wanted it to be a community space, a fundamental part of the downtown landscape, not only for selling books, but also for people to feel safe with competing ideas. As long as the community wants us to be here and enjoys what we’re doing, you’ll be fine. “