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Have You Heard: Bookstore turning the last page

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Susan Thomas laughs at herself while relating a conversation with a book dealer two decades ago after she and her husband opened Thomas Books in downtown Billings.

Back then, there was no Internet access, no Amazon and no Borders or Barnes & Noble bookstores.

“I remember my Random House dealer calling me in the early 1990s saying, ‘I have this little title, a pocketbook, about the Internet. Are you interested?’ ”

“Nah,” Thomas replied, not quite sure what the Internet was good for.

Now, 20 years later, Thomas Books is a casualty, in large part, of the Internet giant Amazon, which sold six million e-book Kindle readers last Christmas. Thomas Books has started a going-out-of-business sale and will close by late August.

When the large chain stores opened in Billings, Borders Books ate up 30 percent of Thomas Books’ sales. Barnes & Noble took another 30 percent, but Thomas Books gradually recovered those revenues.

The store’s best financial years were 2006 and 2007. Then the economy crashed.

By 2010, Thomas Books and many other locally owned businesses were starting to recover when the e-book wave broke.

“By that Christmas and Christmas the following year, we could see the impact of people getting e-readers,” Thomas said.

Sales at Thomas Books didn’t even increase last September after the Borders store closed.

Finances aside, Susan and Dallon Thomas were looking at semi-retirement anyway, a break

from the six-day weeks.

“We’re moving onto other endeavors that will involve the literary life,” she said. “I can’t quit cold turkey at this point.”

When Susan and Dallon opened the bookstore at 209 N. 29th St., Thomas Books and Barjon’s Books were the only new bookstores in downtown Billings. But they had a handful of used books stores to keep them company, stores that have since closed or moved on.

When Thomas Books closes in three months, Barjon’s will be the only surviving new book store and A Few Books More will be the only used bookstore left in downtown Billings.

Itty Bitty downtown

While working as a baby delivery nurse and in the neonatal intensive care unit for 10 years, Tina Stinson started shooting photos of newborns for the families for the local March of Dimes, which shares the images with NICU families.

She likes to capture their character when they are 3 to 10 days old.

“I like them when they are sleepy and their skin is like little Shar Pei dogs, when they are so fresh and new,” Stinson said.

Eventually, she opened a studio at 2223 Montana Ave., next to Ciao Mambo Restaurant, but had to move after 14 months after another business leased the space next to Überbrew, a craft beer bar and restaurant that will open soon.

So on May 15, Stinson moved her business called Itty Bitty Portraits to 219 N. Broadway Ave., Suite B. She also photographs senior girls and uses makeup services by Serendiptity Salon and Spa.

Canvas Creek Team Building, Karen Grosz’s business, is co-leasing the space with Itty Bitty Portraits.

Stinson still works one day a week as a nurse. On her off hours for families who want portraits, she voluntarily takes photos of premature infants, capturing the baby’s first expressions, and hands them over to the March of Dimes.

“I photograph all the neonatal babies,” she said. “It’s hard for parents to take pictures in there.”

About town

The first acquatic center in Billings Heights, The Oasis, opens to the public on June 3. The Better Billings Foundation built the $4.5 million complex at Aronson and Caravan avenues. A season pass costs $199 per household. Daily tickets are $7.95 for adults and $5.95 for children. Check it out at www.billingsoasis.com

A male haircut shop offering TV sports, hot steamed towels and neck-and- shoulder massages has opened its first Montana location in Billings.

Sheri Anderson, who also owns a retail store and restaurant in Cody, Wyo., owns the Sports Clips Haircuts franchise at 111 24th St. W.

Sports Clips, based in Georgetown, Texas, has grown to 890 locations since it started in 1995. That ranks in the top 20 of fastest-growing franchises, according to Entrepreneur Magazine.

United Airlines is continuing its summer nonstop flight from New York/Newark Liberty International Airport to Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport for part of the winter ski season. The Saturday-only flight will run from Dec. 22 through March 30, 2013.

Tax help from the IRS

The Internal Revenue Service is encouraging small-business owners to take advantage of two tax credits that Congress changed late last year. One is for companies hiring eligible unemployed veterans and another for employers buying health care coverage for their workers. To learn more, go to www.irs.gov and look for Form 5884 and Form 3800.

By the numbers

10.1 percent: The gain expected through next year in the median price for a home in Billings. Unlike cities that saw inflated home prices collapse during the housing meltdown, in Billings home prices dropped just 3 percent from the market peak. The median price now sits at $176,000 and rising, according to a CNN Money article. CNN placed Billings in eighth place on a list of the top 10 housing markets where home sale are improving fastest.

After falling 34 percent from the peak, U.S. home prices are now at 2002 levels, according to the Case-Shiller monthly index.

Scams du jour

Watch out for these scams that capitalize on the American tradition of honoring veterans on Memorial Day.

Charging veterans for services they can get for free.

Any caller posing as a Veterans Administration employee asking for your credit card or other financial data to “update records.”

Fraudulent pitches to get veterans to transfer their assets into an irrevocable trust.

Scammers asking soldiers and sailors for copies of their passport while claiming to be government contractors recruiting veterans.

Beware of hidden fees and exorbitant interest rates on “instant approval” credit cards for military loans.

Even folks who honestly try to help vets can fall victim.

Watch out anyone claiming to be a soldier saying he has to sell a car cheap before deployment. The car may be “hot” or stolen.

And watch out for online dating posts from someone claiming to be deployed in a remote area of Afghanistan or Iraq who wants you to wire money.

This list is courtesy of The Better Business Bureau, which offers free help for consumers who want to verify sales pitches at www.bbb.org/us/military-line.

Laugh lines

“Nature abhors a vacuum, but not as much as a cat does.”

— Nelson A. Crawford

“Other dogs look at French poodles and wonder if they are members of a weird religious sect.”

— Rita Rudner

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Business editor for the Billings Gazette.

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