Montana Valley Bookstore: Rich and Rural

Odd Jobs, On the Road, People, Travel Destinations
on April 1, 2001

The billboard claims 100,000 used books. Go ahead and start counting. Ill put on some coffee.

Keren Ranneys bookshelves offer a convenient hiding place for Scarlett, her furry 25-pound basketball of a cat, but the tens of thousands of books surrounding her feline in every direction are what attract visitors from all over the world.

Exit Interstate 90 and ask any of the 409 residents of Alberton, Mont., for directions to the big used bookstore. Theyll point you to it, usually with a smile. Montana Valley Bookstore also announces its presence with a billboard on the interstate claiming 100,000 books. Ranneys father, Kenneth S. Wales Jr., erected the sign in 1978 when he opened the store.

He had measured the space and knew the building would hold that many, Ranney says. She took over the business in 1981 when her father died and has been running it alone ever since. When we first came here and bought the building, people would say: Youre going to put what in there? But Dad was smart enough to know that people in Missoula, a college town 30 miles away, would come to him eventuallyand that the billboard would attract enough of the 6 to 8 million people who drive by on the interstate every year.

Ranney often is asked if she really has 100,000 books in the store, located a block west of the Alberton Town Hall.

Go ahead and start counting. Ill put on some coffee, she says. Ranney estimates she has about 80,000 on the shelves, but she has at least another 75,000 stored in two 40-foot cargo containers. So her stock exceeds the highway claim by a fair margin.

My aim is to get as many books as possible into the hands of the people who will love them the most, she says. She believes running a used bookstore with old books that are sometimes hard to find is a public service, like a museum or a library. Theres value in just having those books there for the public to look at, even if they dont take them home.

Alberton Mayor Sandra Tocci agrees.

The bookstore brings in lots of tourists, and we see license plates from all over the country, Tocci explains, but more important is that its a great reference resource. Keren will lend books to anyone. Its almost more of a library than a bookstore. The town has a library, but its only open two days a week.

Ranney has a formula to determine how much she buys and sells a book for, but makes plenty of exceptions.

Sometimes people have fallen on hard times or are so old that their only pleasure is reading. Ill either cut the price or trade them a book straight across. When little kids come in, they usually get a book for whatever small change they have in their pockets.

Comfortable armchairs at the end of each row of shelves invite folks to sit and read. Ranney especially likes to see the local high school kids come in and read for a while, and she makes sure they know that she doesnt mind if they dont buy. The bookstore has a different feel depending on the time of year. In the winter, books come in and get piled on the floor, in stairways, and on chairs, waiting to be sorted and shelved. In the warmer season, from May through October, 200 people a day walk through the door and many of the books leave with them.

Ranney says she often talks to visitors about their home ground. Im in a rural area, she says, and Im as isolated as I want to bebut the whole world comes through that front door. When theyre gone, she can enjoy the benefits of living in a small town where people all know one another.

Sometimes I come out and sit in one of the chairs and look around and cant quite believe it all, she says.

And I cant imagine not doing this.