The Billings Bookstore Cooperative has hired Gary Robson as its general manager, and purchased the assets of Robson’s store, Red Lodge Books & Tea.
The new hire is exciting news for the co-op because Robson, 57, brings expertise in a variety of areas, including publishing and writing. He and his wife, Kathy, purchased the Red Lodge bookstore in 2001 and expanded it, adding a popular tea shop with 1,500 varieties of tea.
The Red Lodge store will close in mid-June, but some of the employees, including the tea shop manager, will be hired to help run the Billings store. The Billings Bookstore Cooperative is planning to renovate the former Wendy’s restaurant, 2906 Second Ave. North, and open by the end of summer.
“We’ve been working on the bookstore co-op for over a year, and all the pieces are falling into place,” said co-op board president Carrie La Seur. “Hiring Gary and buying the assets of Red Lodge Books & Tea significantly reduces the time it will take to get the Billings bookstore up and running.”
Robson has extensive bookstore managing and publishing experience, and like La Seur and several other co-op shareholders, he is a published author. He is best known for his “Who Pooped in the Park” children’s series, which have sold 400,000 copies. His latest in the series, “Who Pooped in Central Park?” is coming out in late May.
Robson isn’t happy about leaving Red Lodge with no bookstore for the first time in 30 years. He said there is a possibility that the Billings Bookstore Cooperative could open a satellite bookstore in Red Lodge in the future. At one point, Robson operated a satellite bookstore in Absarokee.
“Being a part of a larger community — and being located just down the street from MSUB, Rocky and the Billings Library — gives us a whole new set of opportunities that don’t exist in a small town like Red Lodge,” Robson said.
The advantage of operating an independent bookstore, instead of a chain bookstore, is that the inventory can be carefully curated to reflect the community, Robson said.
“As a full-service bookstore we’ll have a little of everything, but the focus will be on regional authors and topics, educational books, nature and science, classics, and a strong children’s section.”
Free public events, including author appearances, poetry readings and game nights, will be held at the Billings bookstore. In Red Lodge, Robson kept the bookstore open late on Wednesdays for game night. He spent $1,000 buying games for people to play, and now those games will become part of the Billings Bookstore's inventory.
“When people say, ‘I don’t know if I want to drop $50 on Settlers of Catan,’ I can say, ‘Let’s sit down and play.’ That sells it.”
Robson taught a course at Rocky Mountain College in 2002 and was the former owner and editor of the monthly alternative paper in Red Lodge, the Red Lodge Local Rag, from 2007 to 2015. He said he has often “shaken things up a bit” every 15 years and started something new.
“I’m completely thrilled; this is going to be awesome,” Robson said. “I see nowhere but up on this.”