Best little bookstores of the West

Plus, readers' favorite books about the region.


There’s something about the West that has always drawn lovers of the written word. Perhaps people who love books also love natural beauty, or maybe the type of optimists crazy enough to open a bookstore are often drawn to these harsh yet promising landscapes. Whatever the reason, some of our favorite Western bookstores have endured — through booms and busts, the advent of big-box businesses and online retailers, the recession. Many others have shut down, but those that remain are monuments to Westerners’ perseverance, to our inherent quirkiness and fierce connection to place.

As part of a campaign against Amazon, talk-show host Stephen Colbert offered these stickers for free download, and encouraged viewers to buy books at Powell’s.

Traveling through the region, we’re often surprised (though we shouldn’t be) to stumble upon the kind of bookshop we didn’t know we were looking for, sometimes in the most unexpected location. Perhaps there’s an interesting and knowledgeable person behind the counter, a cat sleeping on a pile of books or some other sign to let us know we’ve arrived. When we find such a place, we remember it for years: I got this book at that little store near the oyster bar on Route 1, we might say; or you’re driving to Lander? You’ve got to stop at that funky bookstore on the way. … 

Only certain types of book lovers seek out such places, people not content to order online or step through automatic doors into an over-curated corporate space. We like to browse, linger, explore, and feel as though we’ve discovered something. We’re collectors of experiences as well as words. We appreciate weight and texture and smell, something to hold onto as we walk away.

A description of all the delightful independent bookstores in the West would overflow this entire issue, so the following list represents only a smattering of HCN readers’ and writers’ favorites. And it reflects my own biases toward creaky floorboards, musty smells and disorganization; hence the omission of better-known places like Powell’s in Portland and Title Wave in Anchorage, despite their excellent selections.


Old Inlet Bookshop, Homer, Alaska

Visitors to Alaska’s most liberal locale usually visit the touristy Homer Spit or the not-very-walkable downtown. The Old Inlet Bookshop, part of a cabin that doubles as a café and B&B, is located in neither place. Instead, it sits at the end of a dirt road near a broad sandy beach and a bird refuge.


Observatory Books, Juneau, Alaska

An antiquarian bookstore tucked into a back alley in the rainiest state capital in the country? A proprietor named Dee Longenbaugh who specializes in hunting down and studying old maps? Yes, please.


Changing Hands Bookstore & First Draft Book Bar, Tempe and Phoenix, Arizona

When a bookstore has its own bar, names it “First Draft” and has a picture of Ozzy Osbourne on its website, you know it’s bound to be interesting. Changing Hands first opened in 1974 and moved to its 5,000-square-foot Tempe location four years later, with the help of a human book brigade.


Bart’s Books, Ojai, California

In 1964, Richard Bartinsdale’s home book collection had grown so unwieldy that he put up a shelf on the sidewalk and a coffee can in lieu of a cash register. Today, the honor system is still in use, and with nearly a million titles, Bart’s Books prides itself on being the largest “outdoor bookstore” in the U.S.


Sagebrush Press Bookstore, Yucca Valley, Calif.

Usually, I shy away from bookstores in strip malls, but HCN associate editor Brian Calvert so strongly recommended this odd little roadside find en route to Joshua Tree National Park that I felt compelled to add it to the list. “It’s total chaos in there, the books are stacked in no apparent order, but it’s full of books about the West and the desert,” Brian says.


Point Reyes Books, Point Reyes Station, California

I bought a book for my fiancé here while falling in love within, so there’s a chance my memories are a little rose-tinted. Still, it’s a sweet little oceanside bookstore in a sweet little town, and it hosts an annual nature-writing festival called the “Geography of Hope,” after Wallace Stegner’s famous phrase.

Maria’s Bookshop, Durango, Colorado

Maria’s is a favorite in Durango, Colorado, where there’s no shortage of great little bookstores.
Courtesy Elizabeth Hopkins

Durango has no shortage of funky little bookstores, but Maria’s is an institution. It’s everything an independent bookseller ought to be: warm, inviting and community-minded. Plus, it treats its staff well — perks include a hammock in the break room for naps and professional massages during the busy holiday season.


Wolverine Farm Bookstore, Fort Collins, Colorado

Located in a coffee shop in Old Town Fort Collins, the volumes in this all-volunteer-run bookshop come mostly from donations, and all sales go to the publication of several thought-provoking publications, including the Matter Journal and Boneshaker, a bicycling almanac.


Iconoclast Books, Ketchum, Idaho

In 2007, the Castle Rock fires devastated Ketchum. The following year, co-owner Sarah Hedrick’s husband died in a tragic car accident, and Iconoclast faced an uncertain future. But last year, Sarah crowd-funded $85,000 to keep it alive. She hopes to use some of the money to start a writer’s residency.


BookPeople of Moscow, Moscow, Idaho

Even when BookPeople temporarily closed in 2012, it left copies of The New York Times at a nearby café so the town wouldn’t feel too bereft. And in 1988, the bookstore published The Field Guide to Outdoor Erotica. ’Nuff said.


Elk River Books, Livingston, Montana

Specializing in regional, nature and outdoor recreation books, this bookstore north of Yellowstone draws big-name authors to small-town Livingston. It’s co-owned by poet Marc Beaudin and his cousin, journalist Andrea Peacock, who’s married to Doug Peacock, a writer in his own right and the inspiration for George Hayduke in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang.


Shakespeare & Co., Missoula, Montana

Shakespeare & Co. is a famous bookstore in Paris, a city that protects its indie booksellers with legislation to prevent Amazon-style undercutting. But the name isn’t copyrighted, and bookstores around the world have adopted it. Fear not, though — it’s not a chain, and this incarnation in Missoula does the original justice.


Sundance Books and Music, Reno, Nevada

Ruby, resting in her sun spot near the fiction section at Sundance Books in Reno.
Courtesy Sundance Books

Located in an elegant-on-the-outside, funky-on-the-inside historic mansion, Sundance is the antithesis of Reno’s bright lights and casinos. It also houses a “healthy assortment” of music (including vinyl), sells local crafts and hosts a literary salon.


Bookworks, Albuquerque, New Mexico

So small it’s hard to turn around in in some spots, Bookworks doesn’t let its size stop it from bringing in big-name authors: As former HCN intern and Albuquerque resident Katie Mast notes, employees just push the shelves aside to host readings.

photo-eye, Santa Fe, New Mexico

A one-of-a-kind shop that specializes in photography books and is adjacent to a fine art gallery, photo-eye is staffed by knowledgeable local photographers and offers an astounding selection of new, rare and out-of-print photography books.


Dudley’s Bookshop Café, Bend, Oregon

Not the bookstore you think of when you think of Oregon, but with a cozy children’s room, decadent pastries and live music (including an in-store piano and weekly tango lessons), Dudley’s aesthetic leans more toward “living room” than “warehouse.”


Robber’s Roost, Torrey, Utah

A shaded, shingled, five-sided abode, Robber’s Roost is the kind of bookstore that offers a sense of discovery — from stumbling upon it in the high desert to finding that perfect book you didn’t know you wanted. If the unique architecture (inspired by Egyptian and American Indian designs) and good food don’t draw you in, the space’s Entrada Institute might: A collaboration of writers, artists and scientists, it’s a clearinghouse for information and inspiration about the Colorado Plateau.  n


Back of Beyond Books, Moab, Utah

Courtesy Back Of Beyond Books

The ultimate destination for literary desert rats, this is one bookstore I’ve never left without buying far more than I’d planned. A cool respite from Moab’s heat and with an unparalleled selection of desert and nature writing, it’s the perfect place to begin any red-rock adventure.


The Elliot Bay Book Company, Seattle, Washington

Seattle has dozens of bookstores, from the anarchist-friendly Left Bank Books to Lion Heart in the basement of Pike Place. But the funky, cedar-shelved Elliot Bay in the Capitol Hill neighborhood may best reflect Seattle’s cultural diversity, having hosted more than 3,000 author readings in Japanese, Spanish, Arabic, French, Estonian and other languages.


Village Books, Bellingham, Washington

Quaint, rainy Bellingham is an ideal town in which to spend hours browsing or reading, and Village Books is the best place to do it. Owners Chuck and Dee Robinson have made their bookstore the cultural cornerstone of the historic Fairhaven neighborhood’s revitalization, and serve a community dedicated to reading: Bellingham boasts one of the highest library-circulation rates in the country, and customers are as likely to include commercial fishermen as college professors.


Wind City Books, Casper, Wyoming

In a place where other small bookstores have disappeared, Wind City Books offers a welcome respite, with coffee that’ll “put hair on your chest” (according to one Yelp review), a book club and a ferocious support for local authors. Oh, and did we mention the coffee? According to another Yelp review, “In a world of passionless baristas, pushing buttons to extract stale, burnt coffee into chemically enhanced drinks … Wind City Books preserves the traditions that make a decent espresso great.”


Mad Dog and the Pilgrim, Sweetwater Station, Wyo.

Polly “The Pilgrim” Hinds, left, and Lynda “Mad Dog” German sell rare books — and eggs — at their Sweetwater Station, Wyoming, bookstore.
Brad Christensen/cc via flickr

I can’t say enough about this amazing book barn on a two-lane highway between Muddy Gap and Lander. Seeking a quieter lifestyle, owners Lynda ‘Mad Dog’ German and Polly ‘The Pilgrim’ Hinds moved 1,200 boxes of books from Denver to Sweetwater Station in 2000. Now they sell fresh eggs along with rare books, have moose wandering past their windows, and have become a destination for pilgrims from as far away as Africa.

Photograph on homepage: Ruby, resting in her sun spot near the fiction section at Sundance Books in Reno., Nevada. Courtesy Sundance Books.

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