In Montana, the Continental Divide separates not only the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains, Glacier National Park and Yellowstone, but also the state's two major markets for books. College towns Missoula, to the west of the Divide, and Bozeman, to the east, have the highest reading populations, and both areas are growing dramatically. East of Bozeman, the landscape becomes flatter and warmer, and is dominated by wheat and farming. This part of the state is where you'll find Montana's largest city, Billings, but it's also a region whose population is shrinking.

As in many parts of the country, there is a tension between long-entrenched local merchants and national retailers. This rivalry is complicated by the quick shifts in population. In the fast-growing areas, newcomers may gravitate to names they know—including chain booksellers and big box stores, local business people said. Wal-Mart, for example, is looking to build in Hamilton, near the Idaho border, one signal of a growing population.

Still, the state has a number of thriving independent bookstores. Country Bookshelf has been a fixture in Bozeman since 1957; Mary Jane DiSanti has been the owner since 1973. Missoula's standout independent is Fact & Fiction. B&N and Costco are taking a cut of book sales in Missoula, though they're located away from the central business district. The important thing, said Fact & Fiction owner Barbara Theroux, is to “know your competition and how everybody complements each other.”

Theroux sees the Internet as “initially cutting in more than now.” But Russ Lawrence, owner of Hamilton's Chapter One bookstore, whose store in Montana's Bitterroot Valley caters to a mixed clientele of ranchers, loggers and a significant biotech research community, said, “What's changed now is those well-educated people have great Internet access.” He's aggressively marketing Chapter One's own site, but so far it's getting more hits than sales.

Booksellers agreed that live events are key to building sales. DiSanti averages about 30—40 readings during the year. Readings can draw up to 400 people, as was the case of Montana favorite Ivan Doig. Lawrence says he benefits from the Hamilton area's status as a vacation destination. The first 80 pages of Jared Diamond's Collapse were set in the Bitterroot Valley, so that author's appearance drew 600 people.

Another characteristic of the state's bookselling business is that it tends to be cyclical. “Consumers really vary by season,” said Theroux. Business starts picking up in spring, when tourists and prospective students arrive, and college graduation brings traffic. In the winter, Theroux relies on book club and other events. She said her store has benefited from becoming known among publishers for doing events; recent readers include Greg Mortenson and Aryn Kyle.

In summer, inventory may shift to accommodate tourists. “A lot of people from out of town are interested in western history,” DiSanti said. She stocks a number of fishing titles for hobbyists drawn to the area. And there's always a market for Montana-related subjects. George Carroll, a sales rep for Doig publisher Harcourt as well as Norman McLean's publisher (A River Runs Through It) University of Chicago, said that Montanans “really like reading books about themselves.” Theroux agreed; she said the focus of her store is “promoting Montana, Montana history, Montana writers” while “still staying as general as possible.”

That's relatively easy, given that Montana boasts a large number of acclaimed writers. The Bozeman area alone finds David Quammen, Jim Harrison, Tom McGuane, Tim Cahill, Doug Peacock, David Large and numerous others. And in Missoula, among those who teach at the University of Montana are Judy Blunt and Kevin Canty, and Bill Kittredge taught there for many years.

Bookselling Health Index
Household Income: $35,399

Population: 927,000

Independent Bookstores: 32

Chain Bookstores: 11

Total Bookstores: 43

Big-box Stores: 23

Total Stores: 66

Stores per Capita: 1 per 14,045

Per Capita Rank: 3