Opinion: Writers on the Range

In small towns, bookstores are thriving


“I love to spend my day in a bookstore,” said Amy Sweet. She lives in Red Lodge, Mont., and was explaining why she and her husband, Brian, opened Beartooth Books in her town of 2,300.

“It was part of the life we wanted—to live in a small town, walk to work, and enjoy outdoor adventures and wonderful people.“

She’s not alone. For many of the same reasons, bookstores have been opening in small Western towns, said Heather Duncan, executive director of the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association.

Since 2020, more than 100 bookstores have opened in her region, which extends across 14 states ranging from Texas to Montana and from Nebraska to Nevada.

One reason for the phenomenon, said Amy Sweet, is that “people are proud of their town, our local history. It’s all a package, and the bookstore gets to be part of that.”

The success of such a low-tech enterprise might surprise people. “Lots of first-time customers come in and say, ‘I thought bookstores were dying,’” Brian Sweet said.

But he believes that a bookstore is a perfect complement to today’s culture. 

“A bookstore is quiet, peaceful and yet mentally stimulating,” he said. “It’s not our devices and incessant TV news.”

Bookstores opening in towns, as opposed to cities, is a trend throughout the West, Duncan said. Of her 60 member stores in Colorado, just 17 are in large cities. The rest are in small towns, smaller cities or suburbs. In the Western Slope town of Paonia, population 1,500, Emily Sinclair opened Paonia Books a year ago. She said she likes exercising her own as well as local taste, and also enjoys inviting Western writers to give talks and sign their new books.

These days, said Duncan, bookstores are becoming more diverse in both ownership and retail model.

“We now have online-only stores, pop-up stores, book buses and bookmobiles,” she said. And new store owners are often Black, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latino or LGBTQ+. “Diverse-owned stores are approximately 20 percent of our membership. In the past it would have been around 10 percent.”

Locating a bookstore in a rural community is arguably another aspect of diversity — and a surprising strength.

“Small-town stores had a much better success rate during the pandemic,” Duncan said, “due mostly to the support of their communities, as well as lower overhead costs.”

The strong connection to community, however, requires work. 

“We pick the books one by one,” Brian Sweet said. “People are surprised to hear that — some think we just sell whatever shows up. But I pore over publisher catalogs, and in a small store, for every book that I choose, probably 200 don’t make the cut.”

Bookstores in tourist destinations, such as Back of Beyond in Moab, Utah, have always thrived on deep community connections. But the current trend highlights how community is something best appreciated by full-time residents rather than visitors.

Like farmers’ markets, microbreweries, bakeries and outdoor-gear stores, bookstores are places to gather in person with like-minded neighbors, Amy Sweet said.

“Customers in a bookstore are friendly and inquisitive,” she said. “They come in to browse and talk about books.”

While tech companies are always looking to “scale up” to provide growth, the challenge for many small towns is finding business models that “scale down” to smaller populations. Bookselling provides that model.

But booksellers agree that they’re doing a job: “It’s business — it’s not reading books all day,” said Brian Sweet. “But it’s a business where people want to support you. Every day people thank us for being open.”

John Clayton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He’s the author of the email newsletter “Natural Stories.” Views expressed do not necessarily represent those of The SUN.