A telephone conversation last year with a woman in Kenya got Gary Robson lots of attention in his Red Lodge Books & Tea bookstore.
“Give me a kilo of purple, a kilo of white and a kilo of golden,” Robson said to his Kenyan vendor. “Everyone in the store was staring at me and I had to say, ‘I’m ordering tea. Tea!”
The former Silicon Valley computer programmer and his wife, Kathy Robson, bought the Red Lodge bookstore 11 years ago. During the last three years, the bookish hangout at 11 N. Broadway Ave., has become a mélange of their interests: a tea shop, a cigar counter, a children’s toys and books section, even leather-bound books and leather bags sold by a company from New York state.
Robson just doesn’t sell books. He writes them, and not just for a vanity publisher.
Since 2004, his “Who Pooped in the Park?” series, teaching children about wildlife by focusing on their tracks and scat, has sold 350,000 copies. The illustrated books, each about a different area, started with Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier national parks, where they remain top sellers. His next book, coming out this spring, focuses on animals in the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest. This is Robson's 23rd book, including 18 in his children’s series.
“I’ve always been doing something else and writing,” he said.
Books and coffee go together, but The Coffee Factory Roasters was just down the block. So Robson picked his preferred drink, tea, and now offers 120 varieties to go or brewed at the store. And after realizing that Red Lodge residents had to drive to Billings or Cody, Wyo., to get a good cigar, the Robsons added a humidor. By then, their son suggested another business name, “Stuff That Gary Likes.”
In the 1990s, the Robsons started selling a software program they developed for real-time TV captioning for the hearing impaired, which is Kathy’s specialty. They sold the company 10 years ago and have two other technological patents pending.
Income from Gary’s writing and Kathy’s captioning pays the bills, but Red Lodge Books & Tea faces the same tough challenges hitting all independent bookstores. Competition from Amazon.com, e-readers and big chains like Barnes & Noble have helped close hundreds of independent bookstores across the country.
But the downward slide of the indies has stopped, according to the American Booksellers Association.
Not all independent bookstores are members, of course, but ABA membership in May rose by 55 percent over the previous year to 1,567, the third year of increase.
Kathy selects most of the store’s children's books, while Gary surfs industry statistics to find books that will sell in this ski-and-resort town of 2,300.
Sales change with snowfall on the Beartooth Pass and the tourist trade, he said, with December sales 2-1/2 times better than April. After a few soft years, this December looks sweet.
“I can say with certainty that this is the best year in the 26-year history of the store,” Robson said.
Instincts and experience at an independent bookstore have to substitute for an army of titles offered at a Barnes & Noble Booksellers.
“They may have 140,000 titles, but about 100,000 sell a book or less per year. They’re serving as decoration,” he said. “People tend to buy the same titles.”
The book selection also reflects the Robsons' tastes, specializing in local history, nature and science. Picking books that will sell also means carrying a mix of hot national books, plus all the regional authors, and holding book signings.
Motorcycle riding Wyoming author Craig Johnson signed autographs at Red Lodge Books & Tea and other regional bookstores before his mystery series about Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire became a hit. A&E just renewed the popular Longmire show for a second season, but the author still tours around his home turf.
“Craig remembers who invited him to their stores before he hit the New York Times bestseller list,” Robson said. “It’s authors like him that keep individual stores alive.”
Tea, already 20 percent of the Red Lodge bookstore sales, brings in the younger crowd, not yet caught by a coffee habit and U.S. tea sales continue to grow.
In a couple of years, per cup sales of tea could top coffee sales, Robson said, so he started importing exotic varieties directly from family-owned tea plantations in Kenya. He also learned to be a showman with a cocktail shaker while making a popular Pacific Northwest drink, Boba Tea or bubble tea, a frothy mixture of tea, milk and syrup poured over pearls of tapioca that are small enough to be sucked up through a large straw.
“Most of the older customers think it’s just weird, but the kids think it’s the coolest thing in the world,” he said.
Tea cakes used to be used as currency among mountain men in Montana. But shipping pressed tea today from China has its challenges.
Part of a big order for the holidays, 6-inch diameter cakes of Pu-erh tea, got no further than Canadian customs officials last week.
“They pulled out these compressed cakes of tea and decided they looked like drugs,” Robson said. “Testing could take months.”