With barely a half-million residents, Wyoming—97,000 square miles of rugged terrain, where the Great Plains meet the Rockies—ranks dead last in population among the 50 states. But with about 40 retailers selling books there, or one store for every 13,000 residents, Wyoming ranks #1 on PW's bookselling health index (if you add the dozen or so Mountains & Plains Association stores that are not counted among ABA stories, the per capita drops to one store for every 10,000 residents.) Sixteen MPIBA stores (10 of them in the ABA) have been around for a decade or longer, two of them since the '20s: Laramie's University of Wyoming Bookstore (1921) and Sheridan Stationery, Books & Gallery (1925).

It's an impressive showing for independents overall, especially considering there are only 99 incorporated communities in the state, ranging in size from the five inhabitants of Lost Springs to Cheyenne's 56,000 residents.

While Cheyenne lost its Waldenbooks this past January, leaving the state's capital with only two general bookstores—one an independent, the other Wyoming's only B&N—three other cities each support three independents: Casper, the Cowboy State's second largest city, with 50,000 residents; Laramie, with 27,000 residents, plus 13,000 students at Wyoming's only four-year university; and Landers, with 7,000 residents, nestled between central Wyoming's Shoshone National Forest and the Wind River Indian Reservation.

“We try not to venture into each other's territory,” said. Amanda Winchester, co-owner of Landers's Main Street Books. “We all work together.”

“Folks [in Wyoming] are independent-minded. After all, this is the first state to grant women the vote [in 1869]. They have an understanding about local business and supporting your neighbor,” Lisa Knudsen, MPIBA's executive director, explained, “That's the biggest reason these independents have survived: people in Wyoming support their neighbors.

Knudsen continued, “Two stores opened in 2007—Prairie Creek in Torrington and Wind City Books in Casper—which is an explosion, statistically.”

Wyoming has gained 4.3% in population since 2000, fueled by a growing demand for workers in the mining and crude oil industries, and newcomers drawn by the state's 3.3% unemployment rate. Casper's population alone has grown 6% in the past decade.

“Wyoming is a boom-or-bust economy, and we're in a boom right now,” said Hugh Jenkins, co-owner of Wind City Books, which opened in September. All kinds of people are moving to Wyoming,” he added. “The collapse of the real estate market is not happening here. We're riding the wave.”

Lisa Craft, owner since 2006 of the 12-year-old Blue Heron Books & Cafe, just a few blocks away from Wind City, reported that sales were up 14% in October over the previous year at her 1,100-square-foot store.

“We've increased our inventory a lot. We're at 4,500 titles,” she said. “We're seeing a lot of new faces in our store and adding new patrons to our buyers' club almost daily.

“Tammy Fleetwood's got her customer base: the old-timers wouldn't go anywhere else,” Craft admitted, referring to the owner of 45-year-old Ralph's Books, Casper's oldest independent. “But she doesn't serve coffee.”

Ironically, Valley Books, which is in Jackson—a town with a $47,757 median household income, topping the state's $43,332 median—isn't thriving as much as might be expected, given Wyoming's vibrant independent bookselling scene and this posh ski town's reputation as a cultural hub amid the splendor of the Grand Tetons. In fact, after expanding in the early '90s, Valley Books downsized seven years ago, going from 4,200 square feet to 1,500 square feet.

“Things have changed. Now, the people who move here are wealthy. They're wired and they're on vacation, or they're hunkered down in their second homes,” said Steve Ashley, who opened Valley Books in 1977. “We're more reliant on tourists than locals.”

Bookselling Health IndexHousehold Income: $43,332Population: 507,000Independent Bookstores: 21Chain Bookstores: 4Total Bookstores: 25Big-box Stores: 14Total Stores: 39Stores per Capita: 1 per 13,000Per Capita Rank: 1