Helena, MT -- July 28, 2007

Richard Van Nice of Richard Van Nice Books, the Book God of Lyndale Avenue.

If you and your friends ever form a book group, he told me in parting, off in the hills and need a Book God. I’ll be there for you.

My Aunt Ginger, the most avid reader in the family, had recently turned in 700 books for credit to Mr. Van Nice’s book store and, when I mentioned that I had just finished my book (After Darkby Haruki Murakami), she and my Uncle Greg took me over.

There are two books that got him into the business--Parnassas on Wheels and the sequel, The Haunted Bishop, by Christopher Morley. They chronicle an older gentleman in New England going from town to town and farm to farm with a big wagon full of books giving talks on philosophical discourse to make his meal and his bed and breakfast. In the sequel he and a spinster woman set up a physical bookshop and he continues with his philosophical meanderings and becomes involved in a plot that involves German spies.

He does a lot of trade in romance, especially Nora Roberts and, over the past three years, does trade in supernatural romance, novels with vampires and witches. Also, Western paperbacks like Zane Grey, William Johnstone and Louis L’Amour—that kind of thing. He also does steady sales on regional history.

A women’s book group recently came in for copies of Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi, to understand women in the Middle East.

“You’re either doing well with swapping or building a wall,” he told one customer.

His readers are 60/40 women/men. About twenty-three years ago, about the time he opened up shop at his current location, he saw a drop off of kids reading….with the exception of Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket, and now, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys thanks to the movies. Once they get hooked, he said, they read. They’re either die-hard or turned off completely.

Once a mother and daughter came into the shop. The mother was asking the daughter why she didn’t read more classics and her gum popping daughter picked up The Scarlet Letter. What’s it about? she asked and Mr. Van Nice responded—Cheer leaders. The mother gave him a quizzical look and Mr. Van Nice shrugged. Give me an A, he said. He was also planning on telling her that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a gardening book but thought better of it.

He’s about two years behind finding room in his store for his books. He likes acquiring more than he likes selling and has a box on his front porch of free books that he would hate to see go without a home, like kittens and puppies. He has someone come by for the books for a farmstead library they’re setting up near Raidersberg, Montana and someone else who comes every three or four weeks to get books for the state penitentiary.

What makes a book a free book? If there’s water damage or a missing cover or if he has multiple copies of it already. The only thing he tries to discourage in his trade-ins is the Reader’s Digest Condensed and encyclopedia sets, and magazines.

He’s a big reader of catastrophe fiction and is currently reading The Rift by Walter J. Williams, which is about an 8.9 earthquake in the southeastern United States. He had studied earth science, concentrating in vulcanology and seismology. He’s also worked as a commercial photographer. He’s lead, he said, a checkered life.

What he likes most about his book shop is the wide range of interests his customers have. At 8am someone’ll come in looking for contemporary romance; at 9am for medical; at 10:30 for mystery; at 11am for art books. It changes all the time. He’s self-described as “low-key renaissance.”

Sam Weller of Sam Weller's bookstore in Salt Lake City (see my SLC post) once came for a visit and gave him advice about putting over-sized books on top to save space and to raise his prices!

The cowboy reading in the background—he had bought out a store in the shopping center and renamed it “Packer’s Roost”. This is his friend’s rendition of an old guy reading in a roost. You can only repair gear for so long.

His store is backed-up against the outfield of the baseball field and is, as Mr. Van Nice put it, the ugliest building in town—bright yellow with purple trim. It's both shop and home. He’s got all he needs—bed, tub, microwave, Swanson’s dinners to nuke and a microwave to nuke them in, TV/VCR/DVD player. It’s all he needs. He’s the old bachelor uncle and his nieces and nephews check up on him every now and then.

Below--a good DVD to check out.


MyUtopia said...

Looks like a fun book place.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the name of his mall store was the Reader's Roost. I know this because I worked there back in the day. We were way ahead of our time--it was a new and used store, and we were trying to figure out how to create an inventory database on a new, powerful Radio Shack TRS-80. Never did get that one solved.
The Roost had a cash register on which you pressed dollar, half-dollar, quarter, dime, nickel, and penny keys, after you had worked out the total. We had wonderful kids working there too... sweet young women who shared the love of books. Van's store was one step in my own meandering path through the publishing world.

I also stole one of Van's "book" jokes, and use it to this day on bookstore clerks that seem friendly ("I won't pay full price for this book--it has eye tracks all over it!").

My oldest daughter still has memories of that store... If you see van (that's what we called him), tell him Don says hi!

Don Eamon
Phoenix, AZ