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A Linchpin for Missoula's Book-Loving Community: Fact & Fiction
Montana Senior News, February/March 2013
Anyone familiar with the Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks’ movie You’ve Got Mail, knows about the challenges independent bookstores face to stay in business. The plot of this 1998 film revolves around Kathleen Kelly, the owner of an independent bookstore in Manhattan that eventually has to close its doors after a mega-bookstore moves to the neighborhood. Romantically speaking, the ending is upbeat. But from the standpoint of independent bookstores, the outcome definitely disqualifies it for happily-ever-after status.

Fifteen years after the film’s launch, many independents are still struggling to hold onto their share of sales to the book-reading public. Competition from chain bookstores and from Amazon’s on-line presence has decimated revenues. But despite the savings these behemoths pass along to consumers, some canny independents have managed to survive. And in the case of Missoula’s Fact & Fiction, not just survive, but flourish.

So, what differentiates Fact & Fiction from the scores of independent bookstores that have disappeared? The business’s mission statement, “Where books, authors, ideas and readers interact...” provides a clue. For many Missoulians, Fact & Fiction has become more than a shop to sit down with or buy paperbacks and hardcovers.

“This place is personal. We’re building a community of readers and know most of the people who come in,” says Barbara Theroux, who founded the downtown store in 1986. Thanks to her passion and commitment, Fact & Fiction has earned a reputation as a welcoming venue to hold book discussions, meet authors, and hear readings. It is where Missoulians go when they want to find Montana-related books or esoteric travel titles as well as Caldecott Medal, Pulitzer Prize, and PEN/Faulkner Award winners.

Through her citywide outreach efforts, this former school librarian has developed a following of loyal customers. Fact & Fiction supports First Night, Montana Public Radio, area private and public schools and libraries, plus events such as the International Chorale Festival. And that merely introduces the short list. In addition, Barbara’s dedicated involvement with Montana Festival of the Book and the Montana Book Award has made both the store and the Garden City better known as literary Meccas.

According to Barbara, Fact & Fiction owes much of its success to the University of Montana (UM) and the students and professors it attracts. UM has a 93-year history of bringing writers and readers to Missoula through its Creative Writing Program.

“People come to study writing and often stay because they like the lifestyle,” she observes. Through the years, Barbara has sold countless books to those students as well as to the authors who have taught them. Previously the book buyer for UM’s bookstore, which also has a Fact & Fiction section, Barbara discovered early on that authors and professors needed a break from the academic scene and campus bookstore. That, along with her book-selling intuition about Missoula’s reading population, impelled her to start her own downtown bookstore. 

“Professors would escape the office and come to the downtown store to browse,” she remembers. “I think they and the general public also wanted to support a woman and a local business.”

Missoula’s role as a retirement destination and commercial hub for five valleys has also contributed to Fact & Fiction’s stability.

“There are major employers here. Lots of legal, medical, and accounting professionals work in the area. Another blessing we have is the people who retire here so they can experience a mix of culture including music, theater, and lectures. They are very definitely readers,” says Barbara. “Many of them find out about new books through listening to public radio or by reading reviews in The New York Times. All together, this is an educated sophisticated group of people, a wise reading community with money to spend on books.”

Additionally, Missoula’s geographic locale between Glacier and Yellowstone national parks has benefited the store. Book-loving tourists migrate through town all summer and frequently stop at Fact & Fiction, where the staff pays attention to what visitors want.

“We won’t beat Amazon on price so we carry less of the big-name authors like Danielle Steele and John Grisham. We’ve lost that market because of heavy discounts. But we carry more Montana authors,” explains Barbara, “and tourists come in looking for Montana authors and history.” Because Fact & Fiction carries so many Treasure State authors, they tag books throughout the store that are written by or about Montana, which makes them easy to spot.

Asked if there are titles customers won’t find on the store’s shelves, Barbara replies, “I don’t carry what won’t sell.” While she may not personally agree with various writers’ stances on religion, politics, or art, Barbara will still stock them if customers request those books.

“I’d like to think I’m open-minded enough to be an advocate for the first amendment. It’s important to carry a variety of genres. Reading develops the imagination. It opens the world to anybody and takes you places,” adds Barbara, who relies on the diverse literary tastes of her three co-workers for suggestions of new titles and authors to stock.

It seems especially fitting that Barbara has a wealth of idiosyncratic book-selling stories to relate. She tells of a Louisiana law firm that ordered 150 signed copies of a Dave Robicheaux mystery to give to clients one Christmas. The book series’ author, James Lee Burke, was a sought-after writing professor at UM. He still returns to Fact & Fiction – about the only setting where he will now do this – to read to audiences from his latest bestseller.

Barbara also enjoys sharing how a neighborhood bar kept ordering cartons of The Last Best Place to sell to customers along with their libations when the popular Montana anthology came out.

“Before we had our party to celebrate the debut, the print version of The Last Best Place was gone,” recalls Barbara. “We sold 500 copies in less than a month.” When one of the anthology’s contributors, Richard Ford, showed up for the book signing, Barbara said, “He took five steps inside the door and stayed there for hours autographing books.”

As for the future of independent bookstores, Barbara expects a better outcome than what moviegoers saw in You’ve Got Mail.

“Things are coming back around for independents,” she says. “People are becoming more conscious of shopping local.”

Her advice to any independent bookstore would follow her own path to making Fact & Fiction a Missoula landmark.

“You have to be a reader to be a successful bookseller. Or, you have to be savvy enough to read the reviews and talk to people who have read the books. A smart manager hires people who have a passion for books and expertise in different areas. You can teach people a business background but you can’t teach people books. Fortunately,” she adds, “I was in the right place at the right time to get established. I still love what I do and am glad I have the opportunity to continue to do this.”

Fact & Fiction is located at 220 N. Higgins, 406-721-2881 and inside the Bookstore at the University of Montana, 406-243-1234. Visit for more information. MSN