The car that parks in front of the Main Street bookstore is a blue Subaru Legacy with a crack snaking up the windshield. It's been in too many ditches and clocked too many miles, but it's dependable and handles the road with style. Like its owner, it's skilled at maneuvering tight corners.
The car, and the bookshop, belong to George McGovern, an 81-year-old newcomer to bookselling, albeit one with outstanding, if unusual, credentials: U.S. Senator from South Dakota, presidential candidate against Richard Nixon, first United Nations global ambassador on hunger, World War II bomber pilot, history professor, seminary student, eldest son of a preacher and author.
McGovern lives for part of each year in Montana's Bitterroot Valley, deep in the heart of the Western Rocky Mountains, some 30 miles south of Missoula. A self-described lifetime lover of books, he hung his shingle out between an antiques shop and a local newspaper office-espresso bar in tiny Stevensville, a town of some 2,000 where his daughter is a teacher. One of the few things he'd never done in his long career is own his own business.
His grandson, Tim Mead, is the manager of (you guessed it) McGovern's. Tim chuckles when he explains that his Granddad loves real estate—and a good deal. "When this historic building on Main Street came on the market, he couldn't resist," he told PW. "He had stacks and stacks of remainders of his own books stored in a D.C. warehouse, and he's a huge history buff. He and Stephen Ambrose were good friends, and Undaunted Courage got the wheels turning. Here he is living in a town deeply connected to Lewis and Clark and he just knows there is going to be a tourist bonanza." So, thanks to the auspicious union of prime space, unusual stock and heavy foot traffic, a bookstore is born.
McGovern's is airy, spacious and quaint, and the nearly 100-year-old ice cream parlor in back serves smoothies, pastries and delicious huckleberry ice cream. The building went up in 1909 and over the years its 2,000 square feet has been home to a barber shop, a pool hall, the American Legion, a cafe and a music store. McGovern's is a combination bookstore/ museum/art gallery. There are paintings depicting Lewis and Clark's Montana adventures, works by Lakota Sioux artist Oscar Howe and lots of McGovern political memorabilia. There are pictures of McGovern with Walter Cronkite, John F. Kennedy and Muhammad Ali; 1972 presidential campaign posters, buttons and bumper stickers; McGovern on the cover of Time, snaps of his B-24 Liberator, and next to a photograph of McGovern and Henry Kissinger at the U.N. hangs the United States' highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
He said he's excited about his new venture as bookseller and about the town he calls home for part of the year. It's a town where signs in the windows of Main Street businesses read: "We support our troops." McGovern's has a sign in its window too. It reads "WAR. Not in our Name."
The titles in the shop are as eclectic as the art. Though he leans distinctly towards history, especially American history, McGovern offers a nice cross-section of bestsellers. He's got Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code next to The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation by Drew Hansen alongside The Passions of Andrew Jackson by Andrew Burstein and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Books and knickknacks are spread across pine tables, lined up in old wooden bookcases and stacked atop crocheted doilies.
McGovern selects the stock himself, poring over bestseller lists and the Book of the Month Club brochures, paying particular attention to catalogues from Montana publishers like Riverbend, Falcon Publishing and Stoneydale. "Granddad decides on inventory when he's flying across the country, scanning newspapers and circling titles in magazines. He tells me what to order and then he writes the checks." Tim said. "He also likes to browse in Barnes & Noble for ideas."
A lot of the shop's steadily selling titles are by and about George himself, including his memoir Terry: My Daughter's Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism (Plume) and his latest The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time (Rowman & Littlefield). He also has copies of his earlier, out-of-print books including a collection of speeches called Time of War, A Time of Peace; Grassroots: The Autobiography of George McGovern; and An American Journey: The Presidential Campaign Speeches of George McGovern. The store also has rare, out-of-print copies of Uphill: A Personal Story by McGovern's wife, Eleanor, and autographed copies of McGovern: A Biography by Robert Sam Anson. Another strong seller is Stephen Ambrose's The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany 1944—45 (S&S), a history in which McGovern played a role. In the back of the store, there is a little nook for used books from McGovern's personal collection—gleanings from a lifetime of reading—which range from a well-thumbed book on Pavarotti to one by William Buckley on sailing.
Of course, George is the prime tourist attraction. From Oklahoma to Alaska, New Mexico to Maine, Democrats and even Republicans step into McGovern's, knowing they'll find a piece of history, not only history books. He takes great pleasure in his public. He's delighted to reminisce with travelers and locals and even more delighted to express his opinions. Just don't ask for an on-the-record comment about the current crop of Democratic candidates!
McGovern is working on a book about where choices for the United States in the next quarter century. He refers to it as a prescriptive book about what the American agenda, both domestic and foreign, should be. "We are in a different world," he said. "Where do we go from here?"