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A Storied State

Fact & Fiction supports Montana authors and provides thoughtful ways to engage with readers

The difference between fact and fiction is the space between what is and what could be. It’s the chasm that connects what is already known to what might be possible. Mara Panich lives in this magical realm. It’s a quaint, long, rectangular bookstore on Higgins, that was once a portion of our town’s silent movie theater.

Mara bought Fact & Fiction from her previous employer on April 1, 2020, after working in and managing the store off and on since 2007. Signing the paperwork on April Fool’s Day of the first month of the Covid lockdown was more like the opening lines of a satire than reality. Sometimes the space is blurred. However, she never wavered. Mara says, “I love books, love bookselling. I can’t imagine not being a bookseller and living in Missoula.”

A recent renovation of the eclectic bookshop leveled out the sloped floor of the old cinema while retaining the historical architecture of the original exposed brick wall. The newly brightened aesthetic encourages book buyers to explore deeper into the old space. In doing so, one is pleasantly surprised to find exciting new releases but is also overwhelmed and comforted by the feeling of home. Montana, specifically Missoula, is all around.

“Montana hiking guidebooks are our top sellers. They’re basically a Missoula starter kit,” Mara teases. “All you need now is a Subaru.” Books by local authors are prized first and foremost and given prime real estate on the shelves and in the windows.

What makes Fact & Fiction more than just a cute little bookstore, is how personal it is for Missoulians. A walk along the aisles is a walk among friends. Most of us could find the name of an author, professor, or photographer whom we know. Mara herself is recognized as an elite 2021 Honor Book recipient of the Montana Book Award for her published collection of poetry, "Blood Is Not the Water.”

Mara knows that a good book tells a story but a great book tells our story. One way to accomplish this is by connecting the audience with the novelists. A quick look at their website calendar, and it’s clear that Fact & Fiction bridges the span between the two. Upcoming readings give book buyers access to talent. A rare not-to-be-missed appearance by James Lee Burke in July will certainly be standing room only. Saturday sidewalk book signings are a unique meet-and-greet opportunity to chat with local celebrities, score a signed copy, and support Montana writers.

Beyond the sidewalk, Mara weaves Fact & Fiction and Missoula into its own love story. A partnership with the Roxy has created a next level book club that dives deeper than most by reading the best seller first, then watching the movie together at the theater, followed by conversation in the seats. Lake Missoula Tea Company also partners with Fact & Fiction in their Tea Explorer Book Club where samples of related teas are shared over a discussion of the book. And, of course, the bookstore has its own signature monthly book club that can be found on their website.

Sometimes, a great book can become personal, not just in the way that it is shared, but in the way that it is given. For the last few years, proceeds of signed copies of Stephanie Land’s “Maid” have been donated to Mountain Home Montana, which provides shelter and networking for young mothers here in Missoula. It’s a full circle gift that Mara has created as the story follows a young woman who didn’t have support as she struggled on the Washington coast. Today, Land resides here in the Garden City.

Fact & Fiction also donates to our schools’ book fairs, Missoula Public Library, University events, and various community raffles.

The aforementioned Montana Book Award is more proof of how intimately connected Mara is with our Montana authors. The award was established in 2001 by the Friends of Missoula Public Library. According to the MBA website, the award “recognizes literary and/or artistic excellence in a book published during the award year. Eligible titles are either set in Montana, deal with Montana themes/issues, or are written, edited, or illustrated by a Montana author or artist.” Anyone can nominate a book, which is then read by the voting committee of librarians. While Mara is not on the voting committee, Fact & Fiction is the official sponsor of the art piece that is awarded to the final winner. The art is chosen by Mara herself and is created by a Montana artist. She goes to great lengths to find something that will connect both the writer and the art maker. Last year, she presented Charles Finn and Barbara Michelman with two ceramic plates depicting a pair of geese flying through swirls of blue sky over darker water. The poet Finn and photographer Michelman’s 2022 award winning book, “On a Benediction of Wind” was a perfect marriage to Helena-based Betsey Hurd’s birds in flight which won the 2012 Treasured Montana Artist award.

Ultimately, selling books is personal to Fact & Fiction’s owner Mara. It’s why she chose to plant herself in a small shop on Higgins. According to her, “It’s important to support local businesses. When you spend your money there, it stays in Missoula longer.” That support is how she can funnel book lovers’ cash to young moms and students.

Being small and local is also how she connects readers with Montana's words. And at the end of the day, it’s she herself and other friends on the shelves and the sidewalks. Those are the places where what is known and what might reside.

“I love books, love bookselling. I can’t imagine not being a bookseller and living in Missoula.” - Mara Panich