Montana Book Co. in Helena bills itself as one of the nation’s loudest bookstores. Co-owners Chelsia Rice and her spouse Charlie Crawford strive to provide a community hub for sharing ideas, as well as a woman- and nonbinary-led safe space for diverse voices.
In addition to promoting outspoken activism, Montana Book Co. upends stereotypes about blue states and red states in the American west. The store sold “a couple of hundred” copies of Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, Crawford said, and community members had a reasonable conversation about Kalispell author Ryan Busse’s Gunfight. On a recent March day, the store flew the pink, blue, and white transgender flag outside its front door. A sidewalk sandwich board proclaimed “Protect Trans Kids,” and a “No War” poster in the window signaled support of Ukraine.
Rice and Crawford moved to Helena after going to grad school and teaching in Portland, Ore.—Rice has an MFA in writing and Crawford an MEd. “Charlie grew up in Helena and returned in 2010 as an educator,” Rice explained. “I followed in 2011 as an educator, as well. Between 2011 and 2018 I spent time doing patient advocacy” for the American Cancer Society, after a bout with cancer led her to reevaluate her career, and she and Crawford considered opening a bookstore. When the Montana Book and Toy Co.—on the historic street called Last Chance Gulch—became available in 2018, “we threw our hats in the ring,” Rice said.
“We tripled the inventory” of books, Crawford said, while also adding crafty sidelines like fountain pens and stationery, and choosing not to sell toys as the old store had. Sci-fi, classic lit, and inclusive children’s books are popular at Montana Book Co., but customers won’t find westerns.
“We are diminishing our Montana-specific inventory and sending people to the Montana Historical Society” for regional titles, Rice explained. “We work collaboratively with our bookselling neighbors,” directing shoppers to nearby used-book venue Aunt Bonnie’s Books. Montana Book Co. also sells books for organizations such as the Lewis & Clark Library, which will bring The Lincoln Highway author Amor Towles to Helena in late April, and on April 29 the store will host an in-person event with Montana novelist Maxim Loskutoff, author of Ruthie Fear (“We sell the hell out of that book,” Crawford said).
Rice and Crawford foreground DEIJ and human rights in their selections, and they offer educators and librarians a 20% discount. They draw a firm line between what they will and won’t stock. “We refuse to sell anything from right-wing Fox pundits or anyone who advocates against marginalized groups,” Crawford said. “No way am I going to pass revenue to people who espouse hate. We focus on doing good work for marginalized people and educating around that.”
Their stance reflects progressive principles, yet “it’s so infrequent that people come at us,” Rice said. “Usually they give an ‘I don’t agree’ head nod and keep on walking.” She and Crawford view Montana as “primarily a purple state,” and she noted, “While Montana as a whole is more conservative, Helena’s downtown is open-minded.” They appreciate the small-town quality of the capital city, which puts them close to the state legislature and makes it likely they will “run into the mayor at the coffee shop.”
Even so, “there are not a lot of safe spaces in town, and it can be a hard place to be a young person,” Rice added. Censorship is on their minds. The store runs a YA book club for people ages 13–18 and invites allies and gender-diverse readers to discuss LGBTQ characters. Montana Book Co. also devotes a large space to popular middle grade titles, Rice said, “and kids come in and hang out.”
During the summer, Helena benefits from international tourist traffic as a National Parks stopover. “The rest of the year, the Helena community keeps us open,” said Crawford, who is grateful for the shop-small and shop-local movements. Year-round, they recommend store favorites like The Rain Heron, by Tasmanian novelist Robbie Arnott (they’ve hand-sold 70-plus copies), and cheer authors like Mary Laura Philpott, who endeared herself by sending her personal ARC of Bomb Shelter when a copy got lost in the mail.
“We are super fortunate to be in our community,” Rice said.