Many things to give thanks for — but most of all, people and health

November 25, 2021 5:19 am

Aunt Bonnie’s Bookstore in Last Chance Gulch in Helena, Montana (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Beer, Benjamin Franklin said, was proof that God loves us.

If that’s the case, then it may just be that bookstore owners are some of the angels he sends to nurture our souls.

This Thanksgiving Day, I am grateful for many things. And, one of those angels whom I admired isn’t around to tend to our souls.

Anna Fattarsi, one of the co-owners of Aunt Bonnie’s Books in Helena – one of many excellent bookstores in the state — died on Oct. 6 of COVID-19 at the age of 71.

In a great story by the Helena Independent Record, Phil Drake recounts how the store has just kind of grown into a community institution, an eclectic mix of books and gifts that is just too daunting to be inventoried.

Any book lover knows the joy of a slightly disorganized bookstore where minutes can melt into hours as you look over the spines of books, finding treasures you didn’t know existed or discovering that one volume you’ve been meaning to buy.

There is just something about the owners who tend to the inventory, curating it for certain groups of customers and loving those who share a mutual love of books. One of the things I’ll never get over is walking into a newspaper office and being hit with the smell of ink and newsprint. That’s the same rush I get whenever I walk into a used book store and breathe deeply the aroma of aging paper, ink and old cloth and leather.

Intoxicating and inviting.

Fattarsi was a lovable book farmer who, despite only seeing me occasionally when I visited Helena, was welcoming and eager to point me toward whatever needful thing for which I was searching. She usually had an entourage of regulars talking about what they were reading or something they had seen. She was a character and magnet. Her quirkiness was all part of the charm, and she kept notecards of regulars and their purchases, including the famous Ted Kaczynski who didn’t buy a lot of books, as Drake reported, but liked the free cart outside.

And so the news struck hard when I heard rumors of her death, and I was mortified when I heard the cause.

You see, I can remember visiting Fattarsi and Aunt Bonnie’s this year. I can remember the signs that asked customers to use hand sanitizer and wear a mask. I remember her cold stare at me as I fumbled with my mask, and her warmth as soon as I got it secured, a regular challenge for me with a huge nose and big ears.

This pandemic hasn’t been easy for anyone, but if someone deserved to survive it, it was the bookstore owner who took every damn precaution to stay open and stay safe. I cannot imagine the heartbreak of the family who had to watch as she tried hard to prevent something like that, only to watch their matriarch succumb to it.

Keep in mind: When masks were in short supply, Fattarsi and the staff used napkins and rubber bands as a makeshift attempt to keep customers and staff safe. That’s how important the community, health and books were to them.

Chelsia Rice, the co-owner of the Montana Book Company just up the gulch, was equally heartbroken. Though it might seem like the nearby competition, Rice tells about the closely knit group of merchants and business owners who love, shop and visit each other. Before even getting into the book business herself, Rice went to Aunt Bonnie’s. And when the Montana Book Company didn’t have a title or someone was looking for used books, they knew exactly where to send that customer – Aunt Bonnie’s.

“There’s a reason you go to certain places or go to a bar,” Rice said. “You want to go where everyone knows your name, and Anna was the kind of person who knew the kinds of customers and the purpose was not the sale, but it was to know what they want.”

Fattarsi curated a collection of crystals and other stones, another nod to her eclectic personality and those customers she loved and knew depended upon her.

“Her presence was a grounding presence, where you could be searching and she’d help searchers,” Rice said.

So as we sit with family and friends, hopefully safely vaccinated, I cannot help but be thankful for the wonderful people like Fattarsi and Rice who pour their lives into places we love. And yet, as we enter the holiday season, I cannot help but think of her family and friends who will mourn her, knowing that it likely didn’t have to be like this. And I am mad that a person who took so many cautions still paid for it with her life.

A lot of the conversations about masking and vaccines has centered on the “me, me, me” – you know, what the government can tell me to do with my body.

But let’s be honest, folks: This ain’t about you.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.