Prairie Lights: A timeless visit to Alberton’s grand bookstore

On Pure Wow, a website I’d never seen before, I came across a list naming the best bookstore in every state in the union.

Ed Kemmick

The winner in Montana? The Montana Valley Book Storein Alberton, just off I-90 about 30 miles west of Missoula. The store was described like this:

“It doesn’t get any more charming than a lovingly tended book collection, run by a mother and son, out of a turn-of-the century former butcher shop in a tiny railroad town (population: 420).”

I won’t argue with that. On the one occasion when I visited the store, it was exceedingly charming and quite well stocked. But I wouldn’t say the collection was “lovingly tended.”

This was in the late 1970s, and I was returning from a hockey trip to Spokane. Back then, there was no hockey rink in Missoula, so for the Missoula Flying Mules, all our games were “away games.”

Generally speaking, the Flying Mules didn’t stop for anything on the way home but cases of Coors beer. Young people who have grown up in a world where craft beers are available in the remotest parts of the country might not believe this, but in those days, a lot of Montanans were just wild about Coors, which was not sold in Montana.

Rarity almost always increases the value of the rare thing, as I would learn later, when I lived in Butte. Butte had once been known as the Gibraltar of Unionism, and even in the early 1980s, when I lived there, it was still a strongly union town. And because very few of the national fast-food chains had any interest in hiring union labor to flip burgers, such eateries were rare in Butte.

And that was why I heard of Butte people who, returning from a trip to, say, Missoula, Billings or Spokane, would bring back a sack of 10 or 15 Big Macs, throw them in the freezer and then nuke them later for some tasty dining. I never actually witnessed this, but I heard it happened.

Because Coors was likewise unavailable, in this case in all of Montana, it was highly prized. And in fact, in those days the beer selection was so wretched that Coors really was pretty palatable by comparison.

I don’t remember how I talked the carload of Flying Mules I was with to stop in Alberton, but I’d heard of the bookstore there and really wanted to see it. None of the other Mules followed me into the store. I remember walking in and finding it empty and utterly quiet, and quite dark.

“Hello?” I said two or three times, a little louder each time, but no one answered. I also knocked on a door in the back of the shop, which seemed to lead to an office, or perhaps to an attached dwelling, but again there was no answer.

So what the heck, I just started browsing. It was dark, as I said, but there were hanging light bulbs scattered around, each with its pull chain, so I pulled a few of them to aid my browsing. I hadn’t been there long when I found a book I wanted: “Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay,” by his nephew, George Otto Trevelyan.

There was no copyright, but on the front flyleaf there was a gift inscription in spidery ink, dated 1884. I still have the book, and the price, $4.95, is still there in pencil on the page before the title page.

Although I don’t remember when I started reading Thomas Babbington Macaulay, I had been a big fan of his for many years, probably because I always felt smarter after a little time in his company. He was one of those English eminences like Samuel Johnson or Charles Darwin, impossibly well read and unfailingly eloquent.

At the age of 4, so I learned from this book, he was taken by his father to visit a certain Lady Waldegrave at Strawberry Hill, and during this visit a servant spilled hot coffee on young Macaulay’s legs. Sometime later, the hostess asked him how he was feeling, to which the boy replied, “Thank you, madam, the agony is abated.”

Macaulay would go on to be a celebrated historian, essayist and Whig politician, a ferocious critic with a mind that retained, apparently, everything he read. One example: He decided he needed to learn Portuguese, so on a long sailing voyage from India back to England, he read a Portuguese translation of the Bible. How? Well, he supposedly knew the King James Version of the Bible by heart, so he figured out the Portuguese as he went along.

Anyway, I really wanted this book, though $4.95 was quite a bit of money then, at least for me. The only problem was, I still hadn’t seen another soul in the store, so I tried the “Hello?” routine a few more times, rapped on the back door again and waited.

At one point I considered leaving a five-spot on the counter, but what if the next visitor, less scrupulous than I, walked off with a few books and my $5? I was still thinking what to do when, finally, I heard someone emerge from the door I had knocked on twice. It  was a man in his 20s or 30s, as a I recall, possibly an owner.

He looked surprised to see me, and since he didn’t ask how long I’d been there I didn’t say, and I quickly completed the transaction. And that was that. I always meant to go back and explore the store when I had more time, but somehow I never did.

But I still have fond memories of that odd experience. And now that I know that it is the best bookstore in Montana, at least according to one source, I will definitely make a point of stopping in one of these days, and promise to report back on the experience.

Also, of course, I still have the book. It contains one of the best things I have ever read about writing, and I could only wish that I felt more often as Macaulay did in describing a recent piece of writing to an editor:

“I have no expectation that the popularity of the article will bear any proportion to the trouble which I have expended on it. But the trouble has been so great a pleasure to me that I have already been greatly overpaid.”

Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.