The same indomitable pioneering spirit that won female Wyomingites the right to vote in 1869—a half-century before the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920—undoubtedly contributed to 27-year-old Torrie Rice's decision four years ago to sell books in the rural southeastern Wyoming town of Wheatland. She's had to overcome seemingly overwhelming obstacles, including a lack of support from many local residents, who are used to traveling great distances to do much of their shopping.
According to Rice—a self-professed “bookaholic”—Wheatland, a primarily agricultural community adjacent to a desolate stretch of I-25, halfway between Cheyenne and Casper, had always lacked a bookstore. The local library “didn't have much,” either, for the town's 3,500 residents.
“I had to drive 60 miles to Cheyenne just to buy books,” she recalls. “So I decided to open a small bookstore.” The Book Nook opened its doors in 2003. “We've been educating people ever since that we're a real bookstore, we're not just carrying a few books,” Rice explains of the business, located in the 100-year-old Wheatland Mercantile building that once housed a dry goods store.
This being Wyoming, where a Wild West mentality still thrives, Rice sells the 4,000 titles in her inventory alongside products made and sold by her husband, Jef Rice: custom-built handguns and rifles.
“Sometimes, men come in for the guns and their wives come in for books; other times, women come in for the guns and their husbands for books,” Rice says of her diverse clientele, most of them residents of Platte County, though she reports that patrons come to her store from as far as Ft. Collins, Colo., 115 miles away.
“At first, the books were on a small shelf. Now,” she tells PW, “it's half the business,” resulting in an 80% increase in book sales over the past four years, and a 20% increase this past year over the previous year.
Rice describes Wheatland Mercantile's stock as eclectic, with an emphasis on children's books and fiction—mostly science fiction, fantasy, westerns and mysteries. Besides Louis L'Amour's classic westerns, Craig Johnson's contemporary mysteries are top sellers at Wheatland Mercantile, because, explains Rice, Johnson “comes here, he's a cool writer and he's even mentioned our store in his books.”
The store also boasts a steadily expanding regional section—not just books about Wyoming but also books by Wyoming authors. “After all, Wyoming writers don't just write about Wyoming,” Rice declares, citing such Wyomingites as Alexandra Fuller (Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight) and Annie Proulx (The Shipping News).
Correcting misperceptions is important to Rice. In fact, she's had to fight to convince her fellow Wheatlanders that, although the number of local downtown retailers continues to decline, their town can support a bookstore. “The Wheatland mentality is, 'This is the way it is,' ” Rice explains. “I'm trying to make people see that things change, people change. It's a slow process.” Elaborating, Rice describes a general “stigma that businesses aren't working in Wheatland because people don't want to spend their money here.” Rice argues that Wheatland Mercantile is making significant inroads. Not only does the local Chamber of Commerce hold up Wheatland in its promotional materials as a prime example of a successful local business, it refers people to the store, as does the Chamber of Commerce in Douglas, a town 60 miles away in the next county. And the only radio station in town features the store's manager (Rice's mother) in a weekly five-minute segment, discussing and reviewing the latest releases.
In a sparsely populated region that's too often passed over on the author tour circuit, Rice also draws patrons into the store by building connections between authors and their audiences in creative ways. For instance, the store houses a collection of the signed books that Rice picks up at bookseller conventions. “We also get books personalized for good customers at BEA and MPIBA,” Rice says. “It furthers their desire to read, because it's signed especially to them.”
“There's a lot of serious readers in Wyoming,” Rice declares. “Especially in wintertime. There's just not a lot of sources where they can get books.”