Local Landmarks: Jazz, Books and One Slice of Bozeman

Step out of the bustle of Main Street into Vargo’s Jazz City and Books, and you get the feeling you’re in a different universe. If you like jazz, that might be the first thing you notice — the airwaves broadcasting jazz legends like Coltrane, Mingus and Miles. But look around, and you’ll see plenty of other topics. Leather-bound Shakespeare sits next to books on vegetarian cooking. Photography books share space with racks of blues CDs. Vinyl records are propped quietly beneath the stairs, poetry books stand across from “The Adventures of Marco Polo.”

Vargo’s has been in Bozeman for over 30 years — first where BagelWorks now stands, then another downtown store for a time, and finally coming to rest at the West Main front it now occupies. Dr. Ben Leubner, an employee and an MSU English professor, calls it “as fiercely independent as jazz itself.”

There are five employees, including the owner, each with their own specialty. They are united by a love of art, of music, and of the soul of the store they work in. “It has a living presence,” Leubner said, “It’s a retail job created in heaven.”

Partly, he attributes that presence to the dogs that make their home in Vargo’s. First, there was Jazz, who still looks down from the walls in photographs — a slim brown and black dog with dark, soulful eyes. Leubner calls her “the spirit of the store.” That torch has been taken up by Abigail, who amiably wanders the store, occasionally greeting the strangers who come in from the street.

Helped along by the canine souls, Vargo’s has acquired a semi-legendary status in the Bozeman community. It is known as an icon, a place where people with unique interests and ideas can find an outlet that shares their love for jazz, for poetry, for art or for books. Leubner describes it as a paradox — a rare and unique environment, but somewhere many people feel immediately at home. “One of the cool things about it is it’s so out of place,” he says. He describes people from all over the country coming to Bozeman and wishing that they had a bookstore as unique as Vargo’s. “In a way, that’s what makes it so in-place in Bozeman.”

Vargo’s has embraced the spirit of artistry in its own atmosphere. Leubner was very excited about the store’s new record player. He discussed the benefits of vinyl over CDs or digital music — the ritual of the needle and the record, the occasional static and scratching, the need to be attentive. In a way, that attention to detail represents Vargo’s well. They still supply CDs and vinyl, even though digital music has largely taken over the industry. The posters hanging in the store are long-dead jazz musicians and movie stars. The neatly stacked shelves are full of obscure books, some in foreign languages. But that, Leubner says, is what makes Vargo’s so great. “It’s about the music, the art, the poetry, way before it’s ever about the money.”

In the ending of “The Great Poet Returns,” the poet Mark Strand asks a question: “Tell me, you people out there, what is poetry anyway?” Maybe some people’s poetry is a place where golden sax lines drift over pages of verse, and the soul of a dog named Jazz still keeps watch over the patrons.

Vargo’s Jazz City and Books is located at 6 W. Main and can be contacted at 587-5383.

Hours: Monday – Friday 9: 30 a.m. – 7 p.m., Saturday: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., Sunday: 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.