This House of Books, the new co-op bookstore in downtown Billings, is at the center of a dispute between the man who was brought in to manage the store and the co-op board that hired him. 

The battle is over tens of thousands of dollars the previous manager says he's owed by the co-op's board and a stack of bills that the board said the manager should have paid when he left the co-op in March.

"It's crushing me," said Gary Robson, the store's previous manager. "It's painful. I just want it to end."

Co-op board president, Carrie La Seur, declined to comment on the specifics of the dispute. She would say only that the accusations Robson has made public are "false and defamatory."

Le Seur said This House of Books has done well during the past quarter and that over the past six months they've been able to put their "financial house in order." She's optimistic about the future of This House of Books. 

"We feel good about the work the board has done," she said. 

The saga started nearly two years ago when Robson, who ran a bookstore and tea shop in Red Lodge, was approached by La Seur, a Billings author, who, along with a group of investors, wanted to launch a bookstore in downtown Billings. 

The group offered to buy Robson out of his bookstore and hire him to be manager of the new co-op. Robson agreed, and last fall the group launched Billings' first cooperative bookstore. 

By February Robson was asking to step down, and in March he and and his daughter, Gwen, who worked as assistant manger, had negotiated an exit from the bookstore with the board. His departure left a lot of financial loose ends, and Robson said he's been asking ever since to get them resolved. 

This summer, Robson and his daughter opened Phoenix Pearl Tea in Red Lodge. He's worried the longer the dispute lasts with the co-op board the more it will hamstring his ability to run his new store. 

Robson said he's tried since March to talk to board members and resolve the outstanding issues. But he said none of his emails and phone calls have been returned.

In a final attempt to communicate with the board, Robson sent a letter last week to co-op members explaining his side of the dispute and imploring shareholders to encourage the board to respond to him. 

"All I'm trying to do is get them to sit down with me," he said. "Nobody is winning here. It's hurting me. It's hurting the co-op."

In the letter, Robson says he and La Seur negotiated and signed a contract on a $100,000 deal to sell his bookstore and hire him on as general manager of This House of Books. Only $55,000 of the amount was ever paid, he wrote in the letter.

Robson also wrote that the final two paychecks owed to him and his daughter were never issued by the co-op and that thousands of dollars in expenditures he made for the store using his personal credit card have never been reimbursed. 

Speaking by phone, Robson said he's been clear that he bears no ill will toward the co-op, that he believes in it and that he is eager to see it thrive. He said he only wants to resolve the financial issues so he can move forward with his new business and his life. He hopes the board will sit down with him and work out a resolution. 

"We could end this tomorrow," he said.