Three reasons why calling Second Edition Books a small business just seems wrong:
1. Ann Finch-Johnston's store on South Montana Street holds somewhere around 40,000 books — enough to put one under the tree for every resident in Butte-Silver Bow County (and a few for out-of-town relatives too).
2. It would be hard to name a business in Butte that more precisely reflects the big-hearted character of the place — and, indeed, is an essential part of it.
And 3. What business is bigger than the business of expanding minds?
But a small business it is, and as Small Business Saturday approaches, Second Edition is pretty much the perfect "Exhibit A" for the argument that shop-local-not-Amazon will make your life better.
Ah, the Butte and Montana book sections. Our history lives here in all its messy profusion. "Her Majesty Montana: high lights in the history of a state fifty years old in 1939" is "A series of 52 radio broadcasts by C.W. Towne on the programs of The Montana Power Co." A podcast before its time. "Montana Directory of Public Affairs, 1864-1960" by Ralph E. Owings. Hmmm. "Montana Directory of Private Affairs" would have sold better.
Ann Finch-Johnston has the perfect background for a bookseller: Eclectic. And, in this case, Butte-centric.
She grew up in Butte, the daughter of Tom Finch, a mining-engineering professor at Montana Tech, and Kathleen Finch. She got a degree in physics from Montana State, and a master's from Washington University in St. Louis. After living in Los Angeles for awhile, she returned to St. Louis and did some doctoral work — cardiac ultrasound research — and also lived in the Washington, D.C. area for a time (husband Todd was an Air Force officer). After his retirement, the couple came back to Butte in 2008.
"The plan was for me to take over for my Mom at the bookstore," she said.
Kathleen Finch started the store in 1985, in a much smaller space (where Dancing Rainbow Organic Grocery is now). The store would move twice more — to a Broadway Street location (currently the Geek Emporium) and then in 2012 to its present, wonderfully spacious location.
Strolling northward from the Montana section toward the classics. But it's not that simple. The store is big but beautifully divided into small, topical browsing areas that happily defy logic just enough to keep you distracted and intrigued, but not so much that you can't actually find something you're looking for. Suddenly in front of me is an enormous old volume with peacock-blue marbled endpapers and gilt lettering on the leather cover with the one-word title, "Vitalogy." It seems to be the 1912 version of Dr. Spock with a little WebMD rolled in ... a family home and health guide. But it's 1,268 pages, so the biggest health danger in the home might be dropping it on your foot. (If this were the 1899 first edition, it could be worth some serious coin, maybe four figures. As it is, it's a steal at $60.)
Ann Finch-Johnston says the store has not changed very much in the years since her mother opened it. "Obviously, we're doing a lot more digital marketing," she says. "But the business model is still pretty much the same. We like to have something for everyone."
Even though the internet has made used booksellers' traditional offer to do "book searches" for customers seem somewhat like a quaint yesteryear feature, Finch-Johnston says she still does searches when she doesn't have what a customer wants. "Some of our customers, particularly older people, don't necessarily want to hunt things down online," she says. "We do it for them if we can."
Finding that special book for a customer is one of the real pleasures of the business, she says.
"There's nothing like having a customer come in and say, 'I remember my parents reading me this book and I want it to share with my grandchildren,' and being able to put it in their hands.'"
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The classics abound, from Dickens and Macaulay to John Galsworthy and Thomas Mann, Wallace Stegner and John Steinbeck. But winning equal shelf space are hundreds of early 20th century popular fiction titles, lowbrow but beloved by many, in their bright-colored covers, some even preening proudly in original dust-jackets with eye-catching illustrations. My boyhood comes rushing at me when I spot "The Shortstop," a baseball story by Zane Grey — and also "Nevada," a favorite among his more than 70 Western titles. Or maybe you'd prefer D.E. Stevenson's bestselling "Miss Buncle Married" or Max Brand's "Dr. Kildare Takes Charge." Each and every one promises a Sunday afternoon enjoyably spent. Just add tea and cookies.
Maybe 10 percent of what Finch-Johnston sells are Butte and Montana books. Every few years, a real rarity pops up, in an estate sale or coming through the door.
But she enjoys the totality of the business, not just the rare and unusual. She prides herself on having everything from scarce first editions to paperback potboilers.
She has three part-time employees. For someone who loves books, and also likes people, it's a great job, surrounded each day at work by millions of well-chosen words.
The wonderful scattering of books presents the occasional odd juxtaposition. "Prague Winter," a memoir by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, seems distinctly uncomfortable cheek by jowl (literally) with "Roger Ailes Off Camera." And who could blame "Birds of the World" for being a little nervous on their perch just above "Cartridges of the World," lurking in the gun section?
Finch-Johnston says that "it's all fun for me," but she is particularly proud of the extensive Mining and Geology section. It's a natural for Butte, and it is particularly meaningful to her because of her father's profession.
A physicist running a bookstore is not something too many people might expect. "I don't know; I was always comfortable with math and science and literature too," she said. "I'm happy doing either.
"But this is the job I've loved the most."
The book displays are beautifully styled. An old O'Keefe & Merritt range has found new work in retirement, being used as a shelf for cookbooks. Loaded library tables, benches and comfortable chairs are sprinkled throughout.
A crate bearing the sign, "I don't remember the title but the book was RED," is filled with a completely random variety of books with crimson covers. If green is more your preference, there's a tall display of books of and about Ireland.
Wandering through nonfiction of every description, I stop in front of the impressive "Presidential Biography" section. Even though we've had only 45 presidents, the section offers some 234 volumes before giving way grudgingly to "Royal Biography."
Here's a beautiful volume: "William Howard Taft: A biography," still in dust jacket, by Herbert S. Duffy. On the flyleaf is the signature of the book's owner, in a precise, ornate hand: "Randall Swanberg, Great Falls, Montana 1944." A quick search reveals that Swanberg, a prominent attorney, was a good friend of A.B. "Bud" Guthrie, and accompanied Guthrie on some of his rambling research trips.
The internet has changed the used book business dramatically. Finch-Johnston says she sells a few books online — mostly "regional titles that aren't from this region," she says — but she and Second Edition Books seem very comfortable in the bricks-and-mortar world.
"Yeah, you can order a book on Amazon," she says. "But if you do, you don't have the experience of coming here, and having us help you find it, and holding it in your hands."
And that's no small thing.