With nearly four decades spent as the owner and operator of Books & Books, the independent Butte bookstore she started in 1980, there are multiple possible sources of 87-year-old Jo Antonioli's longevity.
A 2016 study published in the journal “Social Science and Medicine” found that reading books can help stave off the inevitable, regardless of other factors, such as gender, wealth, education or overall health. And Antonioli, a voracious reader since childhood, has never let up on her reading habits.
That habit is part of the charm of her 70-year marriage to Dr. William "Bill" Antonioli, who is 97. She said they both have fond childhood memories of checking out books from public libraries and that they’re still both big readers.
Another possible source of her longevity is her passion for her work. That passion has kept Antonioli going all these years, she says. And it's a passion she has shared with her husband, who didn't retire until a few years ago.
She’s been showing up to open the doors at 206 W. Park St. to readers of all ages since 1980, and March 15 will mark her 39th anniversary at the store.
Even though some of her eight children are old enough to be making plans to retire, Antonioli says she has no desire to throw in the towel yet. Her one concession to age is that she’s slowed down somewhat, coming in three mornings a week now, instead of five.
“I should,” she said of retirement. “But I don’t want to think about retiring. I love this place so much, it’s like my ninth child.”
Though running a small business is not always easy, the great-grandmother of six is happy to keep the store intimate. She’s expanded only once in all those years and that was some 30 years ago, when she took over what is now the west side of the store.
Born in Seattle, Antonioli had no prior bookstore experience. She opened Books & Books because she saw a need for it. There was no bookstore in Butte at the time, and her eight children had all left home. She now has 20 grandchildren.
“It’s a service to the community,” she said. “It’s a lot more complicated than I thought it would be.”
A child of the Depression, Antonioli says the hardship she experienced in the 1930s left its mark.
“What I remember mostly, you didn’t throw things out. You ate all the leftovers,” she said. “It's a reason I loved the library so. There were all those books, and you didn’t have to pay a cent.”
She remembers a strong mother who had to raise her own two younger siblings, along with Antonioli. She recollects young men showing up in Seattle looking for work that wasn’t always there, and stopping by her family’s home to ask if they could mow the yard to pick up a little cash.
She reminisced Wednesday about walking to a regional branch of the Seattle Public Library as a kid and spoke of how Butte Public librarians encouraged Dr. Antonioli to check out books as a boy. It’s clear she knows how much a book can mean to a child. When asked what her favorite book had been when she was small, her face lit up and she answered with alacrity.
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“Alice in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll, she said.
For such a small store, the children’s section occupies a large portion of it.
She also devotes shelves to local writers and hosts book readings at the Main Stope Gallery around the corner at 8 S. Montana St.
But ultimately, she calls her business longevity a matter of luck.
Antonioli says that the advent of the internet — and readers’ ability to buy books online — took a toll in previous years.
“It dealt us quite a blow. It was hard to get used to,” she said.
Still, she hung in. That strategy appears to have paid off.
After widespread claims of the impending death of the book in the fast-paced information age, there seems to be a nascent renaissance for both books and independent bookstores. Both national and local sales have turned around in recent years.
The American Booksellers Association reports that at the national level, book sales were up nearly five percent in 2018 over 2017.
Antonioli thinks it’s a sign of the times. She says shopping local has gained greater popularity over the last few years.
But sales don’t appear to be foremost in Antonioli’s mind. Books, and their readers, are what she cares about most.
Evidence of that can be found by browsing Books & Books’ shelves, which can turn up surprises such as a book by the 20th-century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. His landmark “Being and Nothingness” is regarded by some as a cornerstone to philosophy, but it’s not an easy read, nor is it a best-seller.
“We try to keep a fair representation of great authors, whether they sell or not, just because you wouldn’t want to go to a bookstore that didn’t have Sartre,” she said.