24 February 2008

Requiem for Fireside Books

By Ken Robison

On rare occasions something happening in Fort Benton's little "colony," Great Falls, will warrant an appearance in this blog. The sad closure of the great Fireside Books not only lowered the cultural level of the Electric City, but the closing passed without mention in the local press!

On October 1st 2006, the lights went out for the last time at 614 Central Avenue, Great Falls. On that day, Fireside Books closed its doors for business, and Montana lost one of its finest antiquarian bookstores.

Fireside Books and its proprietor, Niel Hebertson, represented the best in antiquarian bookstores. Opened in 1994, the store and its hard working owner, quickly established a reputation around Montana as a friendly place to find the rare book for the discerning collector or the common, used book to enjoy a good read.

But, Fireside was much more than a bookstore. Fireside was an antiquarian bookstore in the finest tradition of that dying breed. Niel Hebertson was always the gracious host, offering a cup of coffee and a pleasant environment for casual or serious conversation. His time was your time. He knew and cared about rare books, but he also knew and cared about people.

Fireside Books Closed for Business [Photo by Ken Robison]

A visit to Fireside had many dimensions. People came to buy a special present for a friend, looking through the fine offering of Montana history and western Americana. They came to browse through a truly great selection of children’s books, admiring the old style illustrations and covers that made yesterday’s books for children such a joy. They came to search through the comprehensive military selection that hinted at Niel’s earlier career an officer in the U. S. Air Force. Book dealers from around Montana and beyond stopped by Fireside to buy for their own stores selections that Niel often had priced lower than their own. Writers and historians came from north and south of Montana to buy from Niel’s fine selection and to enjoy conversation with a knowledgeable book dealer and western history buff.

And then there were the regulars who came again and again to share a special friendship with both Niel and his bookshop. Always, Niel paused from his work at his computer, poured two cups of coffee, and the fun began. For Bob, the conversation might range from early Fort Benton to the latest find related to Charlie Russell or Lewis and Clark. For Mark, the topics would span a wide range of military history and memorabilia. For Dwayne, the discussion might range from past military careers to collections of Montana political campaign ephemera. For Clint, the conversation compared hunting and fishing experiences. For Jack, the reminiscences might center on nightlife in Great Falls in the 1940s and 50s when he was young. With Ken, the topic de jour might relate to the latest historical nugget about early Great Falls found in dusty old newspapers at the Public Library or the latest treasure on eBay. But always, the conversation would include the latest on families, wives and children.

Where else in Great Falls could you walk into a store, sit down at a big table with a cup of coffee, and join a discussion with Hugh Dempsey, the great Canadian historian, or Brian Dippie, the fine Charlie Russell historian. Where else would you find Phil Aaberg, Montana’s musical treasure, and this author jointly interviewing Jack Mahood about the early days of jazz music in Great Falls including the unique Ozark Club, where as a young musician Jack played with some of America’s finest Black American jazzmen.

Owner Niel Hebertson on the left and Author Brian Dippie at Fireside Books admiring a Charles M. Russell rarity. [Photo by Bob Doerk]

Yet, today the lights are out at Fireside Books. The coffee and conversations are but a delightful memory of the past. And we ask why? The closure of Fireside came for several reasons. Great Falls is not a great bookman’s town. For many, a used paperback at the Jungle or a new sale book at Hastings or Barnes and Noble will do. The walk-in traffic diminished over the years with many book collectors turning to the convenience of the internet, finding their own selections on Abebooks or eBay or Amazon. And then there was the personal dimension. Several years ago, Niel suddenly became a single parent for his four small children. For four years, he balanced the raising of his children with the demands of operating Fireside Books. In the end, it was simply too much. Whether we knew it or not, we all lost when the lights went out at Fireside Books.

p. s. Is it not telling that the closure of this great antiquarian bookstore has not found a single word in print in the Great Falls Tribune!

Photos: (1) Fireside Books Closed for Business [Photo by Ken Robison]

(2) Owner Niel Hebertson on the left and Author Brian Dippie at Fireside Books admiring a Charles M. Russell rarity. [Photo by Bob Doerk]


Anonymous said...

Its true, this was a classic antique bookstore and its closing was a great loss to Great Falls.

Anonymous said...

The days of stores like Fireside Books existing are over. Fireside books was a place from another time, a rare glimpse into a world before wal-marts and costcos. Fireside Books created a group of friendships and a companionship for me that I had never known before and doubt i will know again. It is missed. -TL

Anonymous said...

You do not find stores like this anymore, nor do you find collectors as dedicated or knowledgeable in historical memorabilia as Niel Hebertson. You could drop a rare book in his hands and he could tell you everything you needed to know about it in thirty seconds flat. You don't find dedication like that in the rare book field anymore. We have lost a truly rare gem.

Anonymous said...

It has been many years since I was last here, I recently went back and was disappointed to see it had been closed. Best of luck to niel, a true good old boy.