Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Look What I Found: Arthur Hailey in Alberton, Montana

Look What I Found is an occasional series on books I've hunted-and-gathered at garage sales, used bookstores, estate sales, and the occasional pilfering from a friend's bookshelf when his back is turned.  I have a particular fondness for U.S. novels written between 1896 and 1931.  If I sniff a book and it makes me sneeze, I'm bound to fall in love.

You are driving west on I-90, the ribbon of road that unrolls the landscape for you between Missoula and Spokane.  It is mid-morning and you are pressed for time, hurrying to arrive in Spokane for that city's annual book festival.  You can't wait to Get Lit!  That night, there will be an event you are certain to love: Pie & Whiskey, featuring a dozen writers (including Anthony Doerr, Sharma Shields and Sam Ligon) who will read flash fiction about, yes, pie and whiskey.  The audience, meanwhile, will be enjoying a slice and two fingers of the same.  You hurry along I-90 because you can already taste the sweet sting of bourbon and blueberry pie on your tongue.

You are not so rushed, however, that you don't have time for a detour.

The billboard calls your name.  Every time you drive this stretch of interstate--which is often--you are summoned.  About 25 miles outside of Missoula, the billboard pops up on the right:

100,000 Used Books
Montana Valley Book Store
Next Exit Then Right

You are helpless, powerless.  You are the metal shaving and the bookstore is the magnet.  You are Han Solo piloting the Millennium Falcon caught in the tractor beam.  You are the puff of lint facing the vacuum.

You put on your turn signal for the next exit.

*     *     *

When Kenneth Wales was murdered by his son-in-law in 1981, he may not have had 100,000 books in his stores in Pennsylvania and Montana, but the total number was likely far north of what the average used bookstore has on its shelves--certainly a lot more than most readers who came through the front door of his bookshops had in their home libraries.  That is why Kenneth Wales was there at that place and that time: to give shelter to homeless books as they waited--sometimes years--for the right owner to come along at the right time.  Like most owners of used bookstores, Wales ran the literary equivalent of an orphanage: lives once loved, then abandoned, then living each day waiting for the right someone to come along, with equal measures of hope and crushing disappointment.

Wales opened his first bookstore in 1966: Gwynedd Valley Bookstore outside Philadelphia in an eight-bedroom Victorian house that held both his books and his family (wife and nine children, including Keren, the current owner of Montana Valley Book Store).  But how did Kenneth come to own 100,000 books weighing roughly 84,000 pounds?  It began with boxes of God, as this 2003 Missoulian story notes:
      Kenneth worked as a land surveyor and settled his family in Missoula in 1952 after a hunting trip to Montana. They built a house in Pattee Canyon and bought land in Sawmill Gulch in the Rattlesnake Valley. The first three of the nine Wales kids were born in Missoula.
      Kenneth's discovery and embrace of Christianity landed the family in Elkins Park, Penn., where he went to Faith Seminary. Combing garage and estate sales for theology books, he brought home boxes full.
      "Pretty soon, we had 15,000 books in the garage," Keren Wales said. "We couldn't park in the garage anymore."
As he and the rest of his family put their time into making the Gwynedd Valley Bookstore a success, Kenneth made frequent trips around the country and over to Europe, gathering books like a squirrel harvesting nuts before winter.  In 1973, on a trip back to Montana, Wales discovered Alberton--then a busy railroad town--and bought a building located on the main street.  The 1910 structure, listed on the National Register of Historical Places, was a meat market until the late 1950s.  The twenty-six rooms, Wales decided, would be a perfect home for his extra boxes of books.  "For five years," the Missoulian article reports, "(the family) traveled back and forth, bringing out books, building shelves, organizing.  They opened in March 1978, becoming a two-store operation with several thousand miles between the enterprises....When Kenneth Wales was murdered in Pennsylvania in January 1981, Keren was the logical one to take over the store."

Each year, Keren goes through about 100 boxes of her father's books, sorting and pricing and keeping the shelves populated with fresh arrivals.

According to an American Profile story, six to eight million people drive by Alberton on the interstate each year, and the billboard Kenneth Wales placed there thirty-odd years ago keeps bringing them in.

*     *     *

Your turn signal is still clicking as you approach the main street of Alberton (pop. 420) and you flick it off with the embarrassed realization that the exit off the interstate hadn't been sharp enough to deactivate the blinker.  Someone driving behind you was probably thinking, "Turn already!"  But when you glance to the rear view mirror, no one is there.  The road behind and ahead is empty.  Few people are being lured off I-90 into the tiny town this morning.

You pull up onto the shoulder of the street and park opposite the late Ken Wales' shrine to used books.  "One hundred thousand," you whisper in the stillness of your car.  You can practically taste the dust motes of literature on your tongue.  You are ready to start sneezing in happy little fits, as long as you are surrounded by old books--both good and bad (because, yes, there's some pretty awful writing residing in this old folks' home for wayward and forgotten books--yellowing Dan Browns are there right alongside the equally-faded Sisters Bronte).

You walk across the street without looking in either direction (no need), step across the bookstore's cat mascot, and enter the store.  It's a relatively small space--no bigger than, say, the shoe department at your local Wal-Mart--but every inch of retail real estate is taken up with a beautiful jumble of spines, dustjackets, and rain-swollen pages.  Shelves and shelves and shelves of books--maybe not 100,000, but enough to keep an earnest browser busy for hours.  Shelves to the left, shelves to the right, shelves towering fifteen feet in the air--so high that each nook has its own stepladder to assist the adventurous in search of the Flaubert perched at the summit of the F-G section.  A friend of yours once said of the store: "I swear the load-bearing walls in that place are made of books."

Even the promise of pie and whiskey and the Get Lit! literary fellowship waiting for you in Spokane can't make you hurry at this point.  You are here to get lost.

The store is empty and you are alone with the cat which, after rubbing once or twice along your ankles, decides you are not the petting kind and trots to the rear of the store and disappears, squeezing past a half-cracked door marked "Private."  The cat has it wrong, however: you are normally a petter of fur; it's just that you're a little distracted this morning.  I mean...BOOKS!

You dive in.

*     *     *

Does anyone these days remember Arthur Hailey?

Wikipedia stakes the claim the author sold more than 170 million copies of his novels in 40 different languages: "Four of his books reached No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list (Airport, Overload, The Moneychangers and Wheels), with Airport alone spending thirty weeks in the top spot."

Ah, perhaps now his name rings a bell.  Airport, Wheels, Hotel, The Evening News--those are familiar titles (at least for Readers of a Certain Age).  Hailey wrote big, multi-character novels full of plots and sub-plots that wrapped around each other like threads of a rope.  Each book was set in a particular industry (auto factories, airlines, hospitals, hotels, banks) with the aim of being a forensic analysis of the various occupations which made up that corporation.  He was a darling of the Reader's Digest Condensed Books series.  Critics may have dismissed his novels as "potboilers," but Hailey laughed all the way to the bank.  He was so successful, even his wife wrote a book called I Married a Best-Seller (1978), which included this description of the titular writer: "temperamental, ruthless, sensitive, impatient, emotional, unreasonable, demanding, self-centered, excessively hard-working, precise, pig-headed, fastidious, fanatically clean, maniacally tidy."

The stiff, cardboard construction of Hailey's characters and plots was so notorious, part of his obituary was devoted to the subject:
Reviewing The Evening News (1990) for The Daily Telegraph, Martha Gellhorn, under the headline "Wooden Prose" complained: "it tells us everything at least three times. Solid-wood dialogue is tailor-made for the mechanical characters who, in turn, tell each other what they are doing at least three times…This is not a book you cannot put down; it is a book you can hardly hold up. It will sell in millions and be translated into 34 languages. Possibly it is more readable in Icelandic or Urdu."

No matter the quality of writing, Hailey's novels were engrossing, methodical dissections of big corporations, meticulously picking out the cogs and springs and levers--laying them all out on the table for his readers to examine.  He was the James Michener of the industrial world.  "Research is like a woman's slip," he explained to one interviewer. "It's necessary, but it should never show.  I realize I get a bit carried away, and mine sometimes does show."  His obituary writer, getting into the spirit of things, returned the favor: "A trim, lean figure, with a natty line in clothes and an enthusiasm for expensive cars and yachts, Hailey flossed his teeth three times a day, and brushed them for 2½ minutes after every meal."

*     *     *

You roll the stepladder into position and climb to the heights of the H section.  The cat watches from below, rubbing its cheek against a leg of the ladder.

You have seen something: a title, a memory, an obsession.  You reach overhead for the book--white dust jacket, bold black letters--and pull it down to eye level.  On the cover designed by Paul Bacon, the "O" of "Moneychangers" is a bank vault door.  It looks like a gold coin.  It is your prize this afternoon in a small Montana bookstore.

Its neighbor on the shelf is the chromatic opposite: the black-jacketed Wheels.  Before you step down the ladder, you grab it and add it to your Hailey haul.

The books are a time capsule and you are hurtled back through wars and presidencies and recessions, to a year before the internet, before phones were smart and books ran on batteries, before the wrinkles on your face, the flab around your belt, and the grey salting your hair.


You are 13 years old and you are at your first paying "adult" job: assistant librarian at the Teton County Library in Jackson, Wyoming.  Your official duties include going through the stacks, volume by volume, ensuring books are in order (alphabetically by author's last name in the fiction section, numerically by Dewey decimal in the non-fiction section); picking up the debris from toddler-tornadoes in the children's section, reshelving stray books and collecting non-book items (sticky lollipops, forgotten stuffed animals, the occasional swollen diaper hidden behind a line of Berenstain Bears books); dusting shelves (especially thick in the Medieval Philosophy section, but particularly light in the Human Sexuality section); checking in books and checking out books at the front checkout desk; and carrying so many armloads back and forth from the front desk that you wonder why your chest and arms aren't the size of Charles Atlas', but remain the frail, concave frame of the perpetually-teased skinny kid.

Your unofficial duties: sneaking off to quiet, hidden nooks within the stacks to read books: Nancy Drew, biographies of movie stars, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (*But Were Afraid to Ask).

Teton County Library
Holding these two Arthur Hailey books in your hands while standing in the narrow canyons of the Montana Valley Book Store, you are taken back to that log-cabin library with its shag carpeting, plastic plants, orange-leather chairs, and hidden-treasure diapers.  Your nose fills with the smell of book glue, dust, burnt coffee and the ghost of wood smoke which always rises from the books of one regular patron--a heavily-bearded man who wears lumberjack shirts and appears to have broken off his relationship with a comb years ago--when he brings them back to the library.

You remember the day you borrowed The Moneychangers from the library, checking yourself out at the front desk with that little rubber stamp with the wheel that turned the due-date numbers (two weeks from today).  You remember thinking two weeks was not enough time, but somehow you'd rise to the challenge.  You remember taking the book home, the 436 pages weighing heavy with promise the entire three blocks from the library to your house on the corner of Glenwood and Kelly streets.  You remember opening the novel, eager to enter the world of "Money.  People.  Banking."  Then, as now, you read the first paragraph:
      Long afterward, many would remember those two days in the first week of October with vividness and anguish.
      It was on a Tuesday of that week that old Ben Rosselli, president of First Mercantile American Bank and grandson of the bank's founder, made an announcement--startling and somber--which reverberated through every segment of the bank and far beyond. And the next day, Wednesday, the bank's "flagship" downtown branch discovered the presence of a thief--beginning a series of events which few could have foreseen, and ending in financial wreckage, human tragedy, and death.
Apart from a scene near the end of the book where a bank teller, kidnapped and blindfolded in the trunk of a car, memorizes all the turns and distances so she can later tell the cops where the bad guys are hiding, you don't remember much about the actual plot or characters (who, your older, cynical self whispers, remembers the qualities of cardboard?).  What you do remember is how the book made you feel.  Immersed, transported, hooked.

At 436 pages, The Moneychangers was a long book--perhaps the longest you'd read in your 13 years--but you stuck with it to the end, feeling like a marathon runner when you crossed over the last page.  Maybe you even did a little fist pump of triumph.

Looking back, you think about how this was probably your personal Ground Zero, the moment this lifelong obsession with reading and, ultimately, writing truly began.  With The Moneychangers, you turned into a professional reader.  It wasn't just a hobby anymore, it was a job--the happiest of jobs you could ever have in the whole wide world.

You hold the books, one in each hand like two paper bricks, and you silently thank the ghost of Arthur Hailey for the gifts he gave you 38 years ago.  Then you walk to the back of the store where you find an unattended cash register perched on a small counter crowded with books waiting to be inventoried and shelved.  You ring the small silver bell and standing there smiling as you wait for someone to come out of the back room to take your money for The Moneychangers.


  1. “A town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore it knows it’s not fooling a soul.”
    What a great blog!!

  2. Lovely appreciation and description, looked up the writer (Doerr) on Wiki and will now seek out a book or two of his.